Racing will be back at Arlington Park in 2020; status beyond remains uncertain
Horse racing will continue next season at Arlington International Racecourse, after a unanimous decision Tuesday by the Illinois Racing Board that erased concerns that last week's races may have been the last in the storied track's history.
The 9-0 vote to award Arlington 68 live racing dates for the 2020 season comes a week after board members lambasted track owner Churchill Downs Inc. over its decision not to apply for a long-sought casino license that once was hailed as a lifeline for the struggling racing industry.
Board members implied that racing dates for 2020 could be withheld if the company didn't clarify their long-term plans for Arlington.
During Tuesday's hourlong racing board meeting at the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago, Churchill officials still didn't commit to applying for casino-style gambling, but they stood by their earlier pledge to continue racing at Arlington through at least 2021.
"We need time to figure this out and we would appreciate your patience as we do so," Brad Blackwell, Churchill's senior vice president and general counsel, told racing board commissioners.
While Blackwell declined to answer some of commissioners' more pointed questions, the board eventually agreed to award race dates to Arlington from April through September, saying they didn't want to disrupt the upcoming racing season.
Still, they sought assurances for the future.
"I encourage you to continue to demonstrate your commitment to Illinois racing," Commissioner Gregory Sronce of Springfield told Churchill officials. "In the absence of engaging in alternative gaming, you're going to need to step it up."
Louisville, Kentucky-based Churchill Downs last month surprised industry observers by announcing it wouldn't seek a state license for casino table games and slots at the racetrack. Company officials said the suburban gambling market is now saturated and the gambling expansion legislation approved by state lawmakers contains an unfavorable tax structure.
The company also now has a majority stake in Rivers Casino in Des Plaines and is bidding for a new casino in Waukegan.
Blackwell on Tuesday sought to clarify an earlier company news release committing to horse racing at Arlington for two more years, leading many to question the track's fate beyond 2021.
The pledge was meant to "provide peace of mind to our employees and community," Blackwell said. The racing board's process over the last week "jeopardized that peace of mind," he said.
Commissioner Thomas McCauley of River Forest asked Blackwell direct questions about the future of Arlington -- like whether Churchill has had meetings about selling the track -- but Blackwell said he wouldn't publicly reveal specifics about the company's internal discussions.
McCauley, a one-time Arlington lawyer, in the end voted with the rest of the board to award the 2020 racing dates.
"At this point, there would be so much disruption with respect to workers' lives if this schedule materially changed," he said.
In the ultimately successful effort to get the 2020 racing dates, Arlington President Tony Petrillo brought with him a letter from Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes addressed to the board. In it, Hayes wrote that the closure of Arlington would cost the village $1 million in annual revenues and more than 2,000 jobs, and be a "black eye" for the Illinois racing industry.
Beyond the presence of Churchill's top corporate attorney, Petrillo was joined in the front row by most of the track's executive staff and legendary Chairman Emeritus Richard Duchossois, the one-time Arlington owner who is now Churchill's largest shareholder.
After the meeting, Duchossois said he had "100% confidence" in Churchill's upper management while reiterating the company's position that the recently approved gambling expansion isn't good for Arlington's bottom line.
"I think what Arlington is looking for is a level playing field. We don't have it now, and this bill certainly doesn't give it to us," Duchossois said. "It makes it almost economically impossible to turn a general profit."
But Mike Campbell, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said even if Churchill implemented some of the 1,200 slots and table game positions the law allows, it would go a long way to boost horse racing purses that continue to decline. Campbell called on the governor and legislative leaders to get involved while saying the board's vote Tuesday puts the industry only on "life support."
"I think they sent a message, but it wasn't loud enough and it wasn't clear enough," Campbell said.
The state regulatory panel on Tuesday also awarded racing dates to Hawthorne Race Course in Stickney, Fairmount Park in downstate Collinsville and a new racino proposed in Tinley Park.