Editorial: Governor's influence could help in fight to save Arlington Park

  • Horses pass the grandstand at the Arlington International Racecourse in Arlington Heights.

    Horses pass the grandstand at the Arlington International Racecourse in Arlington Heights. Daily Herald File Photo

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted5/29/2021 2:00 PM

It's never a bad idea to start doing the right thing. Here's an opportunity for Gov. J.B. Pritzker on a matter of particular interest to the suburbs: Take a look at Arlington Park and its 326 acres of loveliness, which could desperately use some support from him and Illinois government.

We understand why the plight of the track may not have triggered the governor's radar in recent months. Managing Illinois' vast and often fractious legislative operation is complex in the best of times, and ours has been among the voices calling for him to intervene on an array of important issues. This, as over the last 15 months, the pandemic has rightly dominated his attention.

 

Now is an important time, however, for him to turn his gaze this direction. Because if he showed true interest in saving Arlington Park, it could be saved.

It wouldn't be easy, of course. But properly applied pressure from Pritzker on the untethered Churchill Downs Inc. could have impact.

Consider the 10-year battle to bring casino gaming to Arlington Park -- and the entire racing industry -- that ended with promise in June 2019, five months after Pritzker took office. Two months later, Churchill Downs, stunningly, said, "Never mind" to applying for the gaming license.

The track's parent company said in a news release at the time that a casino there would be "financially untenable." The company cited the tax structure of the legislation that allowed the license and the percentage of proceeds targeted for the purse accounts.

"CDI and the team at Arlington will continue to work with legislative and community stakeholders, as well as Arlington's customers, employees and horsemen to find a solution that takes into account the many constituents across the state of Illinois who depend on horse racing for their livelihoods," the release stated. "All options will be considered, including moving the racing license to another community in the Chicagoland area or elsewhere in the state."

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Eleven months later, in July 2020, Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen said of Arlington Park to BloodHorse magazine: "That land will have a higher and better purpose for something else at this point."

Fast forward to the May 21 edition of BloodHorse in which Carstanjen said of the backlash from the announcement of selling Arlington Park: "We've been talking about it for a long time. I thought the official announcement of the sale was pretty well accepted by a number of the constituencies in the Illinois region, locally, and at the state level. Certainly it's disappointing for the horsemen, but it is a theme that is not unique to Arlington Park. There is a reality there that has to be accepted. The ultimate value of the land is such that it's just not responsible to continue."

You see where this is headed?

Consider the April 29 letter to the Antitrust Bureau of Attorney General Kwame Raoul's office in which Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association President Mike Campbell asked the state to investigate whether Churchill Downs violated antitrust laws by quashing the potential for casino gambling at the track to prevent competition with Des Plaines' Rivers Casino -- of which Churchill Downs is majority owner.

No one denies the company is entitled to pursue legal profits with as much zest as it can generate. But when that pursuit aims to diminish the quality of life, cultural or otherwise, in an entire region of Illinois, it demands a response of comparable vigor from the state's chief executive.

Churchill Downs has shown a willingness to exert great force and influence to control the conduct of racing and gaming in Illinois. An equal show of resolve now from the governor could be the right thing for the many communities and interests that have relied on Arlington Park for so long. We encourage him to get involved.

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