Former Gov. Edgar calls on Pritzker to exert pressure on Arlington Park owner
Former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar -- a longtime racehorse owner and breeder -- says Gov. J.B. Pritzker and state leaders should exert pressure on the owner of Arlington Park in an eleventh-hour attempt to save the historic racing venue and the struggling Illinois horse racing industry.
In an interview with the Daily Herald, the former Republican governor -- who has been racing horses since leaving office in 1999 -- also expressed disappointment in Churchill Downs Inc.'s decision to sell the track after refusing to add slots and table games the corporation had long sought to boost its horse racing business.
Despite Churchill's determination to sell the prime 326 acres it owns in Arlington Heights, the two-term former governor said he's still hopeful Arlington could once again be a viable racetrack, turn a slight profit and be an asset for state agriculture jobs.
"I think the entity that really has the real leverage is the state, and that comes from the governor's office," said Edgar, during a phone interview from his farm just outside Springfield. "When you're giving out (casino) licenses, you've got to think what's in the best interest of the state. And if an entity has not really done what's in the best interest of the state, I'm not sure why you'd continue to give them more licenses."
Edgar was making reference to Churchill's pending bid for a new casino in Waukegan and its interest in a potential Chicago casino. But he also pointed to state regulators' March 2019 approval of Churchill's majority ownership stake in Rivers Casino in Des Plaines that in hindsight, Edgar said, was a mistake.
"(The state) should've at least gotten some assurances that they weren't going to basically abandon horse racing. That's unfortunate," Edgar said. "Churchill is still trying to get additional licenses for casinos in the state, so I think the state has leverage with them. There's an investment that the taxpayers have made on Arlington that I think should be protected."
"I collect stamps," he continued. "I don't think the state government ought to be worried about making sure stamp collecting stays, but horse racing creates thousands of jobs that are at risk. We already lost a lot of them because we've dallied around for so long on getting the slots at the tracks like other states have done. Hopefully before it's too late, they'll do something on Arlington."
Pritzker's office didn't respond to a request for comment and hasn't addressed the future of Arlington Park, other than in a brief statement to the Chicago Sun-Times after Churchill announced the track was for sale in February. In the statement, a spokeswoman said the administration was awaiting details on Churchill's plans to maintain horse racing in Illinois and planned to "work with all stakeholders to develop an appropriate solution."
Edgar met Pritzker when they were on the board of YouBet.com, a horse racing online betting platform that ironically later was acquired by Churchill's TwinSpires in 2010. The downstate Republican also served on the Chicago Democrat's transition team after the latter was elected in 2018.
"It's got to come from the governor's office," Edgar said of possible pressure on the Louisville, Kentucky-based corporation. "That just hasn't, I don't think, has happened yet -- that I can see. And the governor knows racing. ... He understands it. He understands Churchill. He's been busy with COVID, and I understand that."
Whether or not Pritzker can do anything to save Arlington, Edgar said the horse racing industry at a minimum needs a long-planned harness racetrack. If Arlington closes, that means thoroughbred and Standardbred horse owners would likely have to compete for race dates at the lone remaining track in the Chicago area, Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero. Maywood and Balmoral parks hosted harness races until their closures in 2015, and a proposal for a Tinley Park track fell through in 2019.
Because of the decline in the local industry, the former Illinois governor for the past decade has regularly raced most of his thoroughbreds in neighboring Indiana. But after the passage of a massive gambling expansion package just months into Pritzker's term, Edgar said he was optimistic for what added slots and table games at Illinois racetracks could do to boost purses and lure horsemen back.
He says he wasn't surprised, though, when Churchill declined to apply for the added gambling at Arlington, opting instead to go all in at Rivers, the state's most profitable casino. He doesn't think that would have happened if Richard Duchossois -- the 99-year-old Arlington Park chairman emeritus and one-time largest Churchill shareholder -- were still in charge.
Duchossois told the Daily Herald in March that he accepts the corporate decision to sell the horse racing palace he built, saying he was briefed on the reasons for the sale and details. Duchossois merged his racetrack with Churchill in 2000.
"It's been explained to me, and I don't understand it, but I agree with it," Duchossois told columnist Burt Constable.
Edgar, who came to know Duchossois well during the 1990s, said the colorful and charismatic billionaire was tough to deal with during negotiations, "but at least he cared about horse racing."
"I'm sure he may not say it, but I think he's got to be disappointed. Arlington was his baby. He loved that place and how he kept that up," Edgar said. "We sometimes disagreed on maybe the course of racing, but he always wanted racing. He wanted Arlington to be viable. I think it'd be a tragedy for him, too, if he saw that come to an end."