On last day of Arlington season, a dark cloud over track's future
Dark storm clouds cast a literal and figurative shadow over Arlington International Racecourse Saturday afternoon, on what was the last day of racing for the season, and perhaps beyond.
The future of the storied Arlington Heights racetrack is uncertain after parent company Churchill Downs Inc. announced plans last month not to seek a casino gambling license -- long-sought by the company for the revenues it could funnel to horse racing purses.
And while the Louisville, Kentucky-based corporation has committed to keeping the track open at least through 2021, the Illinois Racing Board has sought a firmer commitment, threatening to withhold racing dates for next season if board members don't hear more details about the company's long-term plans for Arlington.
Under that backdrop, thousands of racing fans still came to the track Saturday afternoon for a day at the races -- whether it was the last of 2019, or the end of a run that began in 1927.
"People are heartbroken. They're really feeling depressed. This place means a lot to so many people," said Tim Kindlon of Warrenville, who was enjoying his skybox seat with friends in the second-level grandstand. "There's no place like it in the country. It's just unimaginable to us that it won't be here for us in the future."
Kindlon, a regular at Arlington every weekend who's been attending races for three decades, said it would be up to politicians to apply "the right political pressure ... in the right places" if the track has a chance to stay open.
Another longtime Arlington attendee, Mike Mahon, was inside at his regular second-floor spot in front of a wall of TVs showing races from tracks across the country. While still holding a glimmer of hope, Mahon was pessimistic the likelihood of Arlington continuing next year.
"There's nothing I can do about it," said Mahon, of Glenview, author of "May The Turf Be With You," a guide for handicappers. "I'd miss it, but I'd just go to the OTB closer to my house."
Despite recently-approved Illinois gambling legislation that would allow Arlington to add as many as 1,200 slot and table game positions, Mahon believes the market is now saturated with gambling. He said Arlington may have had a better chance to compete the last time the legislature tried to expand gambling, but then-Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed those bills in 2012 and 2013.
What's also changed is that Churchill -- the owner of Arlington since 2000 -- now has a 61% stake in Rivers Casino down the road in Des Plaines. The company also has announced an interest in opening a casino in Waukegan.
"There's just so many gambling dollars," Mahon said. "I can understand Churchill protecting their investment at Rivers. When they took control of Rivers, that was basically the end of (Arlington), I think."
Others who came to Arlington on Saturday weren't aware of the track's precarious future. Some, like Liem and Cindy Ly of Rockford, came dressed to the nines for one of the many special events held in the grandstand suites.
It was their first time at the track -- for a company outing in the Governor's Room -- and they hope to return.
"It's very exciting," Liem said of their experience at Arlington. "Keep it here so we can come back."
The racing board meets again Tuesday to reconsider Arlington's request for 68 live racing dates in 2020.