Inside the Daily Herald's coverage of Arlington Park and the Bears
There's a long history of this newspaper's coverage of Arlington Park and horse racing, certainly in the Sports pages, for the near-century that the local oval has hosted thoroughbreds. Among my earliest memories of going to the track -- albeit, not quite yet legal betting age -- you could pick up a Daily Herald, Daily Racing Forum, Green Sheet and other publications to handicap your day at the races.
But beyond the trifectas, superfectas and daily doubles, Arlington Park -- as an entertainment venue, tourist destination and major employer -- has been one of the primary areas of focus on my Northwest suburban beat in the news pages. And it's seemed that with every story I've written about the racetrack in recent years, there's always been a footnote related to the track's precarious future.
Like in 2017, when track officials came to board meetings in Arlington Heights and Rolling Meadows to ask permission for a billboard along Route 53 to supplant revenues lost to declines in traditional horse racing betting.
Later that year, I met Arlington's legendary chairman emeritus Dick Duchossois, who was hosting dignitaries in his Turf Club on Million Day. At the time, he was still trying to sound an optimistic tone for the grand racing palace he rebuilt from the ashes in the late 1980s.
But on July 30, 2020 -- the same day I was writing a story about the 35th anniversary of the historic fire that destroyed the old grandstand -- track parent company Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen announced the track would "have a higher and better purpose for something else at some point."
After Churchill's surprising 2019 decision to forgo long-sought slots and table games to boost purses at Arlington, I had made a point of tuning into the company's quarterly earnings calls to monitor any developments with Arlington Park. Especially after the decision last February to put the 326-acre property up for sale, my colleagues and I have been hyper-focused on covering and chronicling the past, present and future of this suburban institution.
Among the dozens of story ideas and approaches that came out of our weekly newsroom Arlington Park brainstorming and planning meetings was the May 16 piece by Kevin Schmit about how realistic it would be for the Chicago Bears to move to Arlington Park. Almost a month to the day after Schmit's story published, I got an email from a Bears spokeswoman confirming that the organization indeed submitted a bid to purchase the racetrack site.
Our approach hasn't been just to cover the latest news about the Bears and Arlington Park, but to advance and analyze the news. Sports columnist and longtime track observer Jim O'Donnell -- whose wise and witty writings have always gone beyond the Xs and Os -- has been breaking stories for months.
And last week -- after months of no answers from a spokeswoman for Gov. J.B. Pritzker -- I tracked down the governor in person to ask him about Arlington and the Bears. Certainly, there were other topics of importance that reporters asked about and the governor addressed that day, from COVID-19 to the Naperville and Woodridge tornadoes. We, like other media outlets, have continued to report and write those stories.
But we think it's also important to stay on stories like the fate of Arlington Park and cover it like a local newspaper can, that might otherwise only last a short news cycle elsewhere.