Could Saturday be the last day of racing, ever, at Arlington Park?
The parent company of Arlington International Racecourse has less than a week to prove to a state panel that it's committed to racing at the Arlington Heights track beyond 2021, or risk losing racing for 2020.
That's the latest posture being taken by members of the Illinois Racing Board, who in the coming days plan to press track owner Churchill Downs Inc. for more details about long-term plans for Arlington. Board commissioners also want officials at the Louisville, Kentucky-based corporation to reconsider their decision to pass on seeking a casino license that would make Arlington a "racino," allowing revenues from slots and table games to be shared with horse racing purses.
Should racing board commissioners not get the answers they want by next Tuesday, it leaves open the possibility that Saturday, when the 2019 schedule concludes, could be the last day for racing at the Arlington Heights mecca.
"Everybody wants Arlington to run. Everyone wants them to dig in and develop this sport," racing board Chairman Jeffrey Brincat of Lake Forest said Wednesday. "For Christ's sake, Arlington Heights has a horse head on its village seal. If the true nature of what is going on is Churchill Downs is saying it's going to shutter after 2021, shouldn't we know that?"
A Churchill spokesman declined to comment Wednesday.
What is typically a perfunctory annual vote to award live racing dates to Arlington, along with Hawthorne Race Course in Stickney and Fairmount Park in downstate Collinsville, was delayed Tuesday by the racing board. Under state law, the regulatory body must award racing dates for the following calendar year within the last 15 days of September.
After agreeing to postpone the vote until Tuesday, Sept. 24, the board formed a three-member committee to collect new information and proposals from Churchill.
Notably, the lone "no" vote on establishing the committee was from Arlene Mulder, the former longtime Arlington Heights mayor. During Tuesday's discussion she said the racetrack has been a good corporate citizen of the village.
Arlington has applied for 68 live dates for thoroughbred racing in 2020 -- three fewer than this year. Hawthorne applied for 37 but could get more if the board cuts any or all of Arlington's dates.
The board's outrage came in response to Churchill's Aug. 28 announcement that it wouldn't seek up to 1,200 slots and table game positions permitted under the massive Illinois gambling expansion approved months earlier by state lawmakers. Despite years of insisting casino games were key to the track's survival, the company said the legislation's tax structure, along with the saturation of gambling in the market, make an Arlington racino untenable.
Arlington President Tony Petrillo repeated many of those points Tuesday, arguing that Churchill sought a "level playing field" from lawmakers. But he also said he wasn't privy to higher-level corporate discussions at Churchill, as board members peppered him with questions.
Churchill, which bought Arlington in 2000, acquired a 61% interest in Rivers Casino in Des Plaines earlier this year and now plans to expand the facility. The company also wants to develop a new casino in Waukegan, made possible by the gambling expansion bill.
Arlington does plan to apply for a sports betting license, though those revenues wouldn't go to horse racing purses.
"We're going to work with getting the information we need, whether it be from Churchill, Arlington Park or potentially the horsemen," Brincat said, "so we can make the best decision for next year's racing dates, and whether it will involve Arlington Park."