How Churchill's casino interest set Bears deal for Arlington in motion

To read more stories like this, pick up Sunday's paper for our special keepsake edition on the Bears' possible move to Arlington Heights and the sale of the track. You can read it in Sunday's online e-edition too.

When news of the Chicago Bears signing a purchase agreement for the Arlington Park property broke late in the evening on Sept. 28, it wasn't the first time the long-rumored move was being floated.

The Chicago NFL franchise's relocation from city to suburbs — and specifically the racetrack in Arlington Heights — has been a source of speculation for decades, at least since George “Papa Bear” Halas' appearance at an Arlington Heights Chamber of Commerce luncheon in August 1975. Subsequent team managers toyed with the idea of a move.

But lending more credence today to the blue and orange's interest in the sprawling Arlington Park property — combined with the likely reality that the 94-year-old historic thoroughbred horse racing venue has crossed its finish line — can be traced to a corporate decision of the racetrack's ownership three years ago.

That's when the track's owners, Churchill Downs Inc., purchased a majority stake in Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, effectively shifting its focus away from Arlington Park to the lucrative gambling house only a dozen miles away.

Churchill acquired a 61% interest in Rivers, allowing the Louisville, Kentucky-based horse racing and gambling corporation to expand into other avenues of gambling not permitted at Arlington.

Three months after the deal was finalized, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Illinois lawmakers approved a massive expansion of gambling statewide, which included entitlements for slots and table games at racetracks including Arlington. Churchill and the horse racing industry had lobbied for the additional gambling for more than a decade — seen as a way to boost diminished purses and compete with out-of-state racetracks.

But for Churchill, the gambling bill was too little, too late.

In August 2019, the company announced it wouldn't seek a casino license at Arlington Park, saying the proliferation of gambling elsewhere would make it hard to compete, while blaming the economic terms and tax structure of the legislation as unfavorable to its bottom line.

The Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which represents horse owners and trainers at Arlington, was stunned by the decision, seeing it as an abandonment of Churchill's commitment to racing in Illinois.

Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes interpreted the announcement as a corporate decision about Churchill's unwillingness to compete with Rivers. But at the time, the mayor was still hopeful the track would remain open for years to come.

Less than a year later, Churchill CEO Bill Carstanjen cast an even darker shadow over the precarious future of the racing oval.

“The long-term solution is not Arlington Park. That land will have a higher and better purpose for something else at some point,” Carstanjen said during a July 2020 quarterly earnings call.

Carstanjen made it official in February 2021 when he announced the 326-acre property at Euclid Avenue and Wilke Road was up for sale, and Churchill was using a real estate firm to market the site as a “redevelopment opportunity.”

Based on Carstanjen's earlier comments, Hayes said news of the sale was expected, but still called it “a sad day in Arlington Heights.”

The mayor struck a markedly different tone two days after Churchill's deadline for interested parties to submit initial plans and offers had passed. Bears President/CEO Ted Phillips called Hayes to say the organization had submitted a bid for the Arlington Park site.

“We had hoped it would be a possibility,” Hayes said. “It's a very exciting opportunity and I'm glad to see it came to fruition, but there's a long way to go in terms of evaluating proposals.”

In the team's bombshell announcement, Phillips said the team's latest overture for Arlington Park was part of “our obligation to explore every possible option to ensure we're doing what's best for our organization and its future.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, meanwhile, slammed the announcement as a “negotiating tactic that the Bears have used before,” amid the team's ongoing negotiations for improvements at Soldier Field.

Just three days after a crowd of 7,500 watched the likely final horse race at Arlington Park — a 5½-furlong race won by 7-year-old Illinois-bred mare Sister Ruler — news broke of the Bears signing a purchase agreement for the racetrack property, putting the founding NFL franchise closer to building the state-of-the-art suburban stadium that Halas envisioned 46 years ago.

The $197.2 million deal is “the critical next step in continuing our exploration of the property and its potential,” Phillips said.

Lightfoot said she's willing to negotiate with the Bears to keep them from moving to Arlington Heights, but the team hasn't come to the table.

Hayes said he couldn't think of a “higher and better use” for the old racetrack than the Bears' new home.

A host of approvals and permissions are still needed — chief among them: securing financing for what's expected to be a multibillion dollar project, getting out of the long-term lease deal at Soldier Field, and going through the zoning process in Arlington Heights. A closing isn't expected until late 2022 or early 2023.

  The sun sets on Arlington Park perhaps for one last time as the horse racing season came to an end last month, while the furture of the property is still uncertain. Mark Welsh/
  A track official walks across the infield on the last day of horse racing this season at Arlington International Racecourse. Brian Hill/
  The 326-acre Arlington International Racecourse property will not only accommodate a football stadium, but also surrounding development. Mark Welsh/
FILE - In this May 10, 2000 file photo, freshly planted flowers spell out "Arlington" at the main entrance to Arlington International Race Course in Arlington Heights, Ill. Arlington is among hundreds of tracks a trio of horse racing fans who have made a hobby out of traveling the country to visit different horse tracks are proud to say they have on their list. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
  When Churchill Downs Inc. bought a 61% stake in Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, a series of events began that has led to a Bears deal to buy Arlington Park. Mark Welsh/
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