'We think horse racing is far from dead': Ex-Arlington Park leader wants to redevelop site

Former Arlington Park President Roy Arnold, who left the racetrack more than a decade ago to pursue other business opportunities, is leading a group of developers and investors in a bid to purchase and redevelop the property, while preserving live horse racing there.

The group's proposal calls for the grandstand and racetrack to remain in place at the sprawling 326-acre site in Arlington Heights, while relocating and constructing a new backstretch stable and adding a hotel and entertainment district, as well as industrial, retail and residential components.

“I've always felt on my bucket list there was this unfinished business in helping racing get to a sustainable, long-term business model,” Arnold told the Daily Herald Tuesday. “If this is some small way I can help push that in the right direction, I'm happy to lend my support to the effort.”

The multimillion-dollar redevelopment plan calls for retention of the 126 acres that encompasses the six-story grandstand building, historic oval and surrounding parking lots. The horse barns on the west side of the property would be removed and new, modern ones built in a more compact area on open space elsewhere.

That would make room for a 100-acre industrial park, framed by adjacent industrial properties to the west and the Metra line to the north, according to Arnold's plan.

The developers also want to build a year-round entertainment district of 40 acres that would include a hotel, retail space and condominiums. The hotel would be on the site of the off-track betting parlor that overlooks the track at Euclid Avenue and Wilke Road.

“Imagine having breakfast at the hotel and having the thoroughbreds canter by,” said Arnold, who now runs Endeavor Hotel Group, a hospitality consulting and investment group, and has been involved in that industry since leaving the top job at Arlington in 2011.

Arnold is now pooling a team of developers, investors and equity sources to submit a joint bid to track owner Churchill Downs Inc. ahead of a June 15 deadline. The group also is lobbying village officials, who control zoning and land use permissions for the massive property.

The group, which includes a number of players in the horse racing industry, thinks the racetrack can be a profitable enterprise but needs to be a “diversified entertainment destination,” Arnold said.

“We believe the property can be redeveloped to provide a greater benefit to the community, both in terms of driving the economy, but also in broadening the tax base,” he said. “But we don't think you need to give up racing to do that.”

If the group of horse racing investors doesn't represent the proverbial longshot in attaining the winning bid for the iconic venue, they're at least hoping to be among those who place or show in getting a meeting with Churchill brass.

Arnold admits he often has conversations with interested parties that wonder whether the Louisville, Kentucky-based horse racing and gambling corporation would even entertain the group's offer — certainly with the prospect of the new owners adding slots, table games and sports betting that could hinder Churchill's operation at nearby Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.

Arnold confirmed his group would seek to add those forms of gambling at the track, believing it would fulfill the intent of the 2019 state gambling expansion law. After Churchill declined to make Arlington a so-called racino and the application window lapsed, lawmakers would have to write a successor bill for a new owner to apply for a gambling license.

Whether they eventually get the extra gambling or not, Arnold believes his group's plan is viable, and their offer will be “among the most, if not the most attractive.” He declined to reveal what that number is.

“If there was a willing buyer offering a fair price along with other developers to make this go to the maximum value for their shareholders in terms of return on investment, I can't force them to invite me to the table or accept an offer,” Arnold said. “But now it's going to be public: There was an ability to maintain racing there and the preeminent horse racing company in the world said no to continue racing at Arlington International. I can't control what they would do, but it would not be a good look for them.”

Though Churchill ultimately will decide whom to sell to, village officials on Monday took initial legislative actions to exert some control in the process. That included a ban on any covenants restricting horse racing and gambling that Churchill might seek as part of a land deal.

Arnold supports the move, believing it strengthens his position that Churchill consider all offers.

Even before Churchill formally put the property up for sale in February, Arnold represented many of the same investors and engaged Churchill leadership in conversations about whether they'd sell the track since they weren't applying for added gambling.

“We think horse racing is far from dead,” he said. “But the way to kill it is to destroy places like Arlington.”

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