'We can't force them not to sell': State lawmakers on likelihood of Arlington Park sale

While state lawmakers might wish that Arlington Park remain open for horse racing, they're not taking nearly the same tack as former Gov. Jim Edgar, who thinks legislators and the governor's office should apply pressure on owner Churchill Downs Inc.

Instead, their views seem to be grounded in the reality of the moment, amid a report that Churchill Downs has reached a deal to sell the historic Arlington Heights venue.

“I don't think the governor can intervene in any sort of formal way,” said state Sen. Bill Cunningham, the Senate's point person on gambling. “One thing I will agree with former Governor Edgar: There are many people who care about horse racing who are upset at Arlington/Churchill Downs/Rivers (Casino) for all the obvious reasons.”

Churchill announced in February that it was putting the 326 acres at Euclid and Wilke roads up for sale. Daily Herald columnist Jim O'Donnell reported Wednesday the Louisville, Kentucky-based firm has reached “an agreement in principle” to sell the property, according to multiple sources.

The purported deal is just ahead of a formal June 15 deadline for developers to submit proposals and comes nearly two years after Gov. J.B. Pritzker and state lawmakers approved a massive gambling expansion package that granted Churchill's long-sought wish for slots and table games at Arlington.

Lawmakers and industry observers were shocked when Churchill later declined to pursue the additional gambling at the track, but many now admit they soon came to understand the reasoning: In March 2019, the company took a majority ownership stake in Rivers Casino just down the road in Des Plaines.

The circumstance has Illinois horse owners and trainers — among them Edgar, the former two-term Republican governor — calling upon Pritzker and state leaders to talk tough with Churchill brass in an eleventh-hour attempt to save Arlington and their struggling industry.

In a Sunday Daily Herald story, Edgar said the state has “real leverage” over Churchill, which is one of three finalists for a Waukegan casino license and is interested in bidding for a future Chicago casino.

Pritzker, so far, hasn't commented.

Cunningham, a Democrat from Chicago's Southwest Side and the Senate's president pro tempore, said Thursday that while Pritzker can use his bully pulpit, it's ultimately the confines of the 2019 gambling law and the appointed gaming board that will determine whether Churchill's bid for a Waukegan casino is a good one.

“We can't force them not to sell, just as we saw we couldn't force them to open a racino,” Cunningham said of Churchill's decisions at Arlington. “They're a private company and they are not primarily concerned with horse racing. They are primarily concerned with gaming and they are going to make decisions that are in their best interest from a gaming standpoint. Those interests might not, and probably don't, align with what's best for horse racing in the state.”

Illinois Gaming Board Chairman Charles Schmadeke, appointed by Pritzker in July 2019, declined to answer questions about Churchill Downs' bid for the Waukegan casino and the pending closure of Arlington Park.

“I am aware of some issues, but I'm not in the position to address them with you,” Schmadeke said, referring questions to the state agency's staff.

In a statement, board Director of Policy Joe Miller said regulators haven't discussed the future of horse racing at Arlington with Churchill or any potential plans for the sale or future use of the property. The gaming board, Miller noted, doesn't have jurisdiction over horse racing; the separately appointed Illinois Racing Board does, while that panel doesn't have say over casinos.

But Miller said the gaming board will continue to follow the process established by state law and rules for the awarding of a Waukegan casino license.

That process has been delayed by the pandemic and selection of a consultant to help evaluate the three proposals. Last week, the gaming board inked a $750,000 contract with Christiansen Capital Advisors to do the work.

The winning casino bidder could be announced within six months, Miller said.

Two Democratic legislators representing the Arlington Heights area on Thursday took contrasting positions on what they believe state government's posture with Churchill Downs should be.

State Sen. Ann Gillespie expressed support for an antitrust investigation into Churchill Downs by Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul. The initial request came last week from the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, a frequent critic of Arlington Park's corporate owners.

“I think it's definitely worth exploring,” Gillespie said. “I haven't talked to Kwame about it. I think it's definitely worth exploring given the facts of the behaviors over the last couple years.”

“I have a lot of disagreements with positions they've taken, which we worked hard in 2019 to meet their needs and they turned around and walked away,” Gillespie added.

State Rep. Mark Walker said the horsemen make “a very cogent argument” about launching an antitrust probe. But he opposes using the Waukegan casino bid as leverage in the Arlington situation.

“If that's a tactic to make them stay at Arlington, that's not the role government should play in this,” Walker said.

State Rep. Tom Morrison, a Palatine Republican whose district includes the racetrack, didn't offer any new comments Thursday. When the track sale was announced in February, he said the decision was understandable given the property's location and Churchill's major stake in non-racing gambling, including at nearby Rivers.

Where state legislators could have some power, Cunningham said, is if Churchill tries to relocate its horse racing license elsewhere — as the company has suggested it wants to do — then tries to add slots and table games there. There also are legal questions about whether that license can be moved in the first place.

Cunningham sided with Edgar on the importance of a new harness racetrack, particularly if Arlington closes. That would leave Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero as the lone remaining track in the Chicago area, where thoroughbred and Standardbred horse owners would likely have to compete for race dates.

“As a legislator involved in gaming as well as a fan of gaming, I have some fear of the long-term viability of horse racing in the Chicago area if there's only one track,” Cunningham said. “Arlington is such a great place, such a beautiful track, and has been such a part of that community for so long, but it's hard to envision it staying.”

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Ann Gillespie
Mark Walker
Illinois Gaming Board Chairman Charles Schmadeke said he's aware of the pending closure of Arlington Park at the same time owner Churchill Downs Inc. is bidding for a Waukegan casino, but he declined to address the topic. Peter Hancock/Capitol News Illinois, 2019
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