Jim O'Donnell: Churchill Downs requests 2022 live racing application -- but why?

  • Churchill Downs Inc. has requested a racing application for live dates in 2022. Could this mean more racing at Arlington Park?

    Churchill Downs Inc. has requested a racing application for live dates in 2022. Could this mean more racing at Arlington Park? John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
Updated 7/16/2021 6:46 PM

THE THOROUGHBRED RACING FUTURE of Arlington Park is ... what?

With almost all interested parties braced for the eternal end of live horse racing on the legacied site Saturday, Sept. 25, Churchill Downs Inc. has thrown yet another Kentucky-fried question mark at the mourning procession.

 

The Daily Herald has learned that the Louisville-based corporation has requested an application for 2022 live dates from the Illinois Racing Board.

What the carnivorous CDI will do with the application remains to be seen.

Corporate CEO Bill Carstanjen, as has been his pattern, offered no clarification nor comment.

Dates applications for next year are due at the IRB on Friday, July 30.

The nine-member board is scheduled to hold its annual dates hearing Sept. 23.

THE CDI MANEUVER is certain to open even more ranging speculation on the future of the once global-class local oval.

With the sale of Arlington's 326 acres well along a percolating process arbitrarily designed by Churchill Inc. -- if not done weeks ago -- short-term options would include:

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• Apply for some kind of live meet at Arlington in 2022 -- even if it meant "leasing" from the new ownership of the property;

• Apply for live dates and have a lease agreement in hand with another Illinois racing facility by the time of the dates hearing;

• Apply for a 2022 live calendar, accept the dates as "a placeholder" and then rescind the application before the end of the year;

• Partner with a racing "Corporation X" with "X" acting as mechanical overseer of a 2022 meet at AP; or,

• Not file any dates app at all.

IF CHURCHILL INC. FAILS to be a 2022 licensee in some form for live racing in Illinois, it risks losing entitlement to operate its eight off-track betting sites, betting at Arlington Trackside and the right to continue in-state advance deposit wagering through its online Twin Spires operation.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Further, because of its ongoing chess game involving Arlington Park, CDI -- in a properly run state -- would have already deeply tapped into any reservoir of "corporate goodwill."

That depleted goodwill -- again in a more straightforward state -- would significantly impact if not outright preempt Churchill's continuing campaign for the new Waukegan casino license and a stated desire to be a profit participant in the proposed Chicago casino.

A HISTORIC TEMPLATE for the continuation of racing at a track sold by CDI before its redevelopment exists in the tale of Hollywood Park. That's now the site of the $6 billion Sofi Stadium owned by Stan Kroenke and his Los Angeles Rams and shared with the Los Angeles Chargers.

In 1999, CDI -- under then-president Tom Meeker -- bought the 238-acre track for $140M.

Six years later, the company sold the plant and its land to San Francisco-based Stockbirdge Capital for $257M.

With redevelopment of the property stalled for assorted reasons, Stockbridge and its affiliated Hollywood Park Land Company eventually rebranded as "Betfair Hollywood Park" and held regular thoroughbred meets through 2013 -- a full eight seasons after its sale.

In 2013, The Kroenke Group bought an adjacent 60-acre parcel from Walmart.

(Kroenke -- worth an estimated $8.5B -- is married to Ann Walton Kroenke, a Walmart heir with a net fortune touching $7B.)

In 2014, Kroenke briefly partnered with Stockbridge in the expanded 298 acres.

One year later, he bought out the equity firm's Hollywood holdings and began the five-year, privately funded progression to what is now Sofi Stadium.

THE CHANCES OF CHURCHILL INC. leasing any other race-ready facility in Illinois besides Arlington to host lives dates next year appear slight.

Tim Carey and associates at Southwest suburban Hawthorne Race Course reportedly are preparing two dates applications predicated upon what Churchill does.

If CDI or a nominee request a summer thoroughbred meet, Carey and Co. will simply repeat their spring-and-fall thoroughbreds of 2021, bookending a midyear Suburban Downs Inc. harness season.

If CDI completely exits the 2022 Illinois racing frame, Hawthorne will apply to run a summer thoroughbred season with harness racing in the spring and fall.

Far South suburban Balmoral is a non-starter because of its conversion to a show-horse center five years ago. Its racing oval no longer exists.

Downstate Fairmount Park -- the spartan St. Louis-area enclave now doing business as FanDuel Sportsbook and Horse Racing -- would be perceived by many as a cynical farce as the setting for a Carstanjen "surrogate meet."

SOME VERY SHARP ANALYSTS of Illinois sports-and-gaming insist that the 51-year-old CEO and Churchill are working a crisply predetermined plan and leaving as little to chance as possible.

In terms of Carstanjen's precision, a recent story in The Louisville Courier-Journal stated that in the last 10 years (2011-2021), CDI stock has appreciated by 1,334% -- four times the upper reaches of the S&P 500.

That decade approximates Carstanjen's rise in Louisville and CDI's flip from a national racing corporation to one predominantly involved in casino and new-tech gaming.

AS FOR THE PRESENCE OF THE CHICAGO BEARS at the redeveloped Arlington Park, team chieftains George McCaskey and Ted Phillips remain silent.

But a central question lingers: Why would they have publicly confirmed their bid June 17 if they didn't know they would be part of the new AP?

The Bears bid could have remained confidential into perpetuity.

That's extremely consistent with "The Carstanjen Way."

Now, if the McCaskey-Phillips try sails wide right into Northwest Highway, they have set themselves up for all sorts of new scorn and derision as inept business managers.

In the meantime, what is known is that Churchill Downs Inc. has an application in hand to apply to race in Illinois in 2022.

And the possibility that Arlington Park will be hosting the same old new-mill post parades next summer ain't dead yet.

• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at jimodonnelldh@yahoo.com.

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