Despite 'bleak' outlook, racing board member backs bid for horses and Bears at Arlington

While acknowledging that Arlington Park's future as a racetrack "looks bleak," a suburban Illinois Racing Board commissioner said Thursday he's still holding out hope for a partnership between the Chicago Bears and former track President Roy Arnold's consortium to preserve horse racing at the Arlington Heights venue.

Alan Henry has been a regular critic of Churchill Downs Inc.'s plans to close the racetrack since his appointment to the state panel in February, often the only member of the 10-person regulatory board to publicly express frustration with the corporate decision.

On Thursday morning, at the end of the board's monthly meeting, Henry played the role of booster for Arnold's last-ditch attempt to save the local oval and grandstand. Arnold, a 30-year Marine Corps veteran who was Arlington Park's president from 2006 to 2011, recently told the Daily Herald and a state Senate subcommittee that he's reaching out to the Bears organization in hopes of preserving 125 acres of the 326-acre property for racing, while the Bears construct a stadium and entertainment district on the remaining acreage.

"Sure, Arlington Park's permanent closing may be likely, but it is not inevitable," said Arnold, of Deerfield, an author, journalist and Arlington box holder since 1989. "Why? Because a Bears/Arlington Park partnership makes too much sense to blithely dismiss. And because if the Bears withdraw, the Marine's unit is standing at the ready."

Thursday's racing board meeting, held virtually, was the first since the final race at the track on Sept. 25, and the bombshell announcement that came just three days later: that the Bears signed a $197.2 million purchase agreement for the track and sprawling property surrounding it.

Arnold's group of developers and investors, led by his Endeavor Hotel Group, came some $60 million short of the Bears final offer, but he believes his consortium was the other top finalist out of some 30 proposals that were submitted to Churchill in mid-June.

The Bears and others involved in the sale process have cautioned it's not yet a done deal - a closing is set for late 2022 or early 2023 - giving Arnold, Henry and other horse racing enthusiasts hope that there's still a chance for the sport of kings to be alongside the gridiron at a redeveloped Arlington Park.

"To me, lost in this entire process is the fact that a purchase and sale agreement may simply be the next step in the due diligence process - not evidence of a done deal," Henry said. "There are still so many variables out there. Just one of them is that at any moment, Chicago's mayor could throw some serious cards on the table, now that the Bears have called her bluff."

Following the Bears' announcement about Arlington Park, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she wants to negotiate with team management in an effort to keep the NFL franchise from leaving Soldier Field, but she also expressed frustration that the team hasn't come to the table. Earlier over the summer, Lightfoot dismissed the Bears' interest in Arlington Park as little more than "a negotiating tactic."

Alan Henry
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