It's a longshot, but Arlington Park's survival possible, racing board member says

  • Alan Henry

    Alan Henry

  • While many expect 2021 to be the final season of horse racing at Arlington Park, Illinois Racing Board Commissioner Alan Henry says there's a glimmer of hope to keep the historic venue open.

    While many expect 2021 to be the final season of horse racing at Arlington Park, Illinois Racing Board Commissioner Alan Henry says there's a glimmer of hope to keep the historic venue open. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer, May 2021

 
 
Updated 5/18/2021 5:04 PM

Though saving Arlington Park may be a longshot, recent developments suggest there's still hope to keep the historic venue open, Illinois Racing Board Commissioner Alan Henry said Tuesday.

"There is a path along the rail, and we've still got ourselves a horse race," Henry said during the board's monthly meeting, comparing Arlington's chances to a horse that was 20 lengths back but rallied to win the Kentucky Derby.

 

The comments were Henry's latest attempt to exert public pressure on owner Churchill Downs Inc. to sell to another racing entity.

Two months ago, at Henry's first board meeting as a commissioner appointed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the Deerfield author, journalist and longtime Arlington box holder blasted the Louisville-based corporation for its decision to put the storied track up for sale.

Despite declarations by CEO Bill Carstanjen that the prime 326 acres of real estate would be sold for "other non-horse racing mixed-use options," Henry on Tuesday noted prospective buyers are now angling to bid on the property and keep a portion of it operating as a thoroughbred racetrack.

One such proposal -- that of a group led by former Arlington Park President Roy Arnold -- is to keep the grandstand and racetrack in place while relocating and constructing a new backstretch stable and adding a hotel and entertainment district, as well as industrial, retail and residential components.

Two days before, the Arlington Heights village board blocked Churchill from placing restrictive covenants on the land as part of a sale, in what is the municipality's effort to preserve the possibility of horse racing and gambling there.

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Henry called the move "a big deal."

"Is it a game changer? Who knows. But CDI certainly now has to at least take it into consideration," he said.

Henry, author of a collection of short fiction stories in the book "Horse Tales," waxed nostalgic about Arlington -- always "a happy place ... on a sunny summer afternoon."

"It's families picnicking on the grass at the top of the stretch, and office parties going full tilt in the suites," Henry said in his prepared remarks. "It's folks marveling at the thousands of flowers, massive cantilever roof and expansive European-style paddock area."

"It's the bowling club high-fiving in the winner's circle as the horse they recently claimed wins his first race, and dads standing at the rail with their 2-year-olds on their shoulders cheering on their pick, and couples posing for pictures in front of the statue of John Henry and The Bart -- and swearing it still looks like The Bart won the world's first million-dollar race."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"This is all a part of the magic that is now on life support."

Henry agreed with Charles Gruenwald, a Churchill Downs shareholder who spoke during public comment earlier in the meeting and said if Churchill doesn't wish to keep Arlington open, the company should let somebody else try.

"Arlington is the nicest racetrack in North America and it's in the third largest sports market," Gruenwald said. "Yes, I'm a shareholder of Churchill Downs and I want the company to do good, but more importantly I want Illinois racing to do good. I want the employees at Arlington to do good. I want them to have jobs. And I want the horsemen in Illinois to have a promising future."

Racing Board Chairman Dan Beiser said those frustrations and concerns are shared by many on the board, throughout the state and in the horse racing industry. By comparison, at Fairmount Park in downstate Collinsville, Beiser said there's renewed excitement among racing fans because of initial and planned improvements to the track.

"It's a breath of fresh air for this neck of the woods," said Beiser, of nearby Godfrey, who recently attended Fairmount's opening day. "And I hope that breath of fresh air makes it up north."

Churchill Downs has set a June 15 deadline for developers to submit proposals.

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