Suburban racing board member blasts Churchill for decision to sell Arlington
A newly appointed member of the state panel that regulates the horse racing industry didn't take long to call out the owner of Arlington International Racecourse for its decision to put the storied track up for sale.
Alan Henry, a journalist and author appointed last month to the Illinois Racing Board by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, criticized Churchill Downs Inc. Tuesday for what he called "a shortsighted and self-defeating posture" not to sell to another racing entity.
The Louisville-based horse racing and gambling corporation -- whose namesake track is home of the Kentucky Derby -- has created a "gauzy connection" in the public's mind, Henry argued, with that storied race, its iconic twin spires and the tradition of thoroughbred racing.
And so selling Arlington to someone who will keep the sport there would be an opportunity to burnish, rather than diminish, Churchill's brand, Henry said.
"While CDI's stock is currently riding high, the corporate graveyard is full of companies whose leaders lost sight of their brand and in doing so lost the loyalty of their customers," said Henry, a Deerfield resident who has been a box holder at Arlington since the track reopened in 1989.
"The facts here are clear: On its current trajectory, CDI intends to shut down for good what is generally viewed as the most beautiful racing facility in the country, produce massive collateral damage across the thoroughbred and standardbred industries statewide, and continue to generate a rising tide of ill will among horseplayers nationwide," he said. "That is a really bad look when the foundation of your brand is horse racing."
Officials at Churchill Downs didn't respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Henry's comments, read from a prepared statement, came at the end of the racing board's monthly meeting, where otherwise routine business -- such as approval of racing officials for the 2021 season -- was conducted. It marked the first meeting of the state panel since Churchill's Feb. 23 announcement that it planned to market the 326 acres on which the 94-year-old Arlington Heights racetrack sits as a "redevelopment opportunity."
Tuesday was also the first meeting since Pritzker's Feb. 8 appointments of Henry and John Stephan, of downstate Alton. The state regulatory agency's board has seen much turnover in recent months, but it now has eight members, who each receive $12,827 a year in compensation.
The fate of Arlington Park was the proverbial elephant in the room until Henry broached the topic a half-hour into the meeting, held virtually.
Henry, a freelance writer, former communications director for then-Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes and former editor at the Chicago Sun-Times and Pioneer Press, called on Churchill to facilitate a seamless transition of ownership to someone who would keep the track open.
But he did reference the corporation's history in recent years with other iconic racing venues: It closed Hollywood Park near Los Angeles in 2013, and the grandstand was bulldozed two years later to make way for a new NFL stadium. Churchill slowly shifted its focus at Calder Race Course near Miami to a casino opened at the site in 2010; the last horse race there was in November 2020.
Now, Arlington Park has been deemed "disposable," Henry said, in an effort to protect its investment in nearby Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.
"In the long run, the company that trumpets its bond to horse racing and wants to keep the brand in good standing across all its platforms has to respect current horseplayers and keep attracting new ones. To do that, you've got to honor the horse and the horsemen and mean it, and that starts by keeping tracks open, not closing them down," Henry said.
No other member of the racing board addressed the Arlington sale during Tuesday's meeting. But racing board Chairman Dan Beiser of downstate Godfrey ended the meeting by thanking the owners of Illinois' two other racetracks -- Hawthorne Race Course in Stickney and Fairmount Park in downstate Collinsville -- for "putting some excitement into the sport."
Hawthorne is in the midst of a $400 million redevelopment that will combine live horse racing with slots and table games, while Fairmount is rebranding into FanDuel Sportsbook and Horse Racing, under a partnership with the sportsbook operator that took its first bet at the track last week.
"These are two good examples of people that are committed to helping Illinois horse racing, the horsemen (and) the backstretch workers," Beiser said.