Horsemen call on Illinois Attorney General to launch antitrust probe of Churchill Downs

The association representing horse owners and trainers at Arlington Park has called on the Illinois attorney general to launch an antitrust investigation into track owner Churchill Downs Inc.

The request stems from the Louisville, Kentucky-based corporation's August 2019 decision to forgo slots and table games at Arlington Park, five months after it acquired a majority stake in nearby Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.

In a letter to the Antitrust Bureau of Attorney General Kwame Raoul's office, Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association President Mike Campbell urged the state's top legal officer to investigate whether Churchill violated state or federal antitrust laws by quashing the potential for casino gambling - or even continued pari-mutuel wagering on horse races - at Arlington in order to prevent competition with Rivers just 12 miles away.

"Churchill executives evidently engaged in a campaign to block current and future gaming scenarios at Arlington while telegraphing messages to deflect public attention from its actual intent: shielding Rivers from a major gaming competitor in close proximity," Campbell wrote in his April 29 letter to Antitrust Bureau Chief Blake Harrop. "Whether Churchill's steps rose to the level of illegal anticompetitive behavior, we respectfully submit, is worthy of your review."

The five-page letter also was forwarded to the U.S. Department of Justice, Illinois Racing Board Chairman Dan Beiser and Illinois Gaming Board Chairman Charles Schmadeke.

In a statement, officials at Churchill Downs called claims of possible anticompetitive behavior "outlandish and unsubstantiated," and without merit.

"Churchill Downs Incorporated evaluated the Illinois Gaming Act and determined the economic terms to pursue a gaming license were not viable for Arlington International Racecourse," the statement reads. "As announced earlier this year, CDI has retained a real estate brokerage to market the property and expects bids by the end of next month. We intend to move forward with this plan and are undeterred by ITHA's baseless allegations."

The attorney general's office didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The horsemen's association, which represents nearly 2,500 thoroughbred owners and trainers at Arlington, has been critical of Churchill's decision to abandon plans for a so-called racino at Arlington - which would have boosted purses for horse races - and the subsequent announcement in February that the historic track is for sale.

Churchill had lobbied for slots and table games at Arlington for nearly two decades before it purchased a 61% stake in Rivers, then opposed the massive state gambling package as it was being negotiated in Springfield in 2019.

A lengthy statement released by the horsemen's association Wednesday - in which the group alleges a "pattern of deceit" by Churchill executives - comes less than three weeks before the deadline for parties to submit redevelopment proposals for the 326 acres Churchill owns in Arlington Heights.

Campbell is facilitating a proposal from a group of investors led by former Arlington Park President Roy Arnold that would preserve the grandstand and racetrack for live horse racing while adding a hotel, entertainment district and industrial, retail and residential components.

In the letter to the attorney general's office, Campbell noted he previously made racing board regulators aware of a reported offer by prominent horse trainer Louie Roussel. During Arlington Million Day in 2019, Roussel verbally offered Churchill Downs President/Chief Operating Officer William Mudd $200 million for the track and its casino license, but Churchill reportedly rejected it, according to Campbell's letter.

"It's unfortunate that Churchill Downs, once a stalwart of thoroughbred racing, appears now to care solely about corporate profit," Campbell wrote in his statement Wednesday. "But Illinois isn't Churchill's trough - our state doesn't exist to feed Churchill's greed. A gaming license such as the one granted to Rivers Casino is a privilege. It means Churchill has a responsibility to follow the law, particularly when the law is aimed at serving the best interests of Illinois taxpayers."

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Mike Campbell
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