O'Donnell: Does thoroughbred racing at Arlington Park still have a pulse?

  • The ninth and final race heads toward the finish line on Saturday Sept. 25, the final day of racing at Arlington Park. Sister Ruler finished first.

    The ninth and final race heads toward the finish line on Saturday Sept. 25, the final day of racing at Arlington Park. Sister Ruler finished first. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
Updated 10/27/2021 7:17 PM

THAT PULSE?

Faint, for sure, but it could mean more live thoroughbred racing at Arlington Park.

 

With the global landmark widely perceived as a prime candidate for last rites, please hold all Mass cards.

The Daily Herald has learned that an extremely well-resourced connection of businessmen has initiated contact with senior management of the Chicago Bears that could keep 'em racing around the local oval at least through 2026.

Most importantly, it is said that the Bears are listening.

The group's plan centers on a four-year proposal to resume live racing on a limited scale in the summer of 2023.

Still, in response to a general inquiry on the matter Wednesday, Scott Hagel -- the Bears senior VP of marketing and communications -- said: "We are in the process of conducting our due diligence on the property and are not pursuing any horse racing opportunities on the site."

But the site is being pursued.

And the pursuers are a seasoned and convincing mix.

ACCORDING TO THE TIMETABLE projected since the Purchase and Sale agreement between the Bears and Churchill Downs Inc. was announced Sept. 29, calendar year 2023 will mark the first summer that the team controls the AP land.

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If the Bears were to accept the idea -- either to lease the 32-year-old main building and the necessary land or sell the plant and a portion of the 326-acre site -- the consortium would then likely conduct more extended April-through-September live meets in 2024, 2025 and 2026.

Then, by the time of the Illinois Racing Board's 2027 dates hearing in September 2026, who knows what could happen on the evolving landscape of sports and gaming in the state of Illinois?

WHILE THE NEW GROUP is reportedly willing to accept operating losses as patrons of the Arlington racing arts, that's not necessarily a financial certainty.

If the bottom line on live racing operations and active ancillaries are the sole criteria, racing at Arlington continues to turn a profit.

That despite the fact the recent AP season was burdened by COVID-related attendance limits, bare-bones staffing and a pervasive sense of doom and farewell.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The emerging association has also developed a plan to operate the racetrack in meticulous synchronization with the probable paths of action needed to construct the new George S. Halas Stadium in time for a summer 2027 opening.

The group's grid is said to include:

• Demolition of the current Arlington backstretch;

• Construction of a smaller, more efficient stable area along Euclid Avenue; and,

• Extinction of the training track which currently occupies the extreme northwest corner of the sprawling AP trapezoid.

HALAS STADIUM IS EXPECTED to be constructed in that northwest section.

The stadium and adjacent "plazas" are expected to require approximately 30 acres. There likely will also be another 60 acres for parking and up to 20 more acres for an enhanced aesthetic.

Optimum acreage for the revitalized Arlington Park is projected to be 125 acres. That would include leaving the main building, the primary synthetic racing oval and the one-mile turf course intact.

But if racing were to continue after the opening of Halas Stadium, the track's land requirement could be reduced, primarily because of shared parking and harmonic scheduling.

The emergent association was not a bidder in the process managed by CBRE for Churchill Inc. earlier this year.

Nor does it have any plans to seek any kind of casino or supplemental gaming at this time if its offer is accepted by the Bears.

Whether by lease or purchase, the group's initiative would represent the Bears' first return on an investment that is expected to touch close to $2.7 billion in stadium costs.

THERE IS NO QUESTION that the latest Arlington racing lifeboat faces some perilous waves.

Foremost is the fact that CDI CEO Bill Carstanjen has repeatedly declared that live racing is dead at AP.

That was one reason that industry analysts very quickly dismissed the formal bid of former AP president Roy Arnold and Endeavor Properties LLC -- the sole announced hopeful that was going to "preserve" racing at the palatial site.

A critical unknown is whether CDI can now implode the main building or whether the option to perform that lamentable task will be contractually passed on to the Bears.

If the main building is demolished, the new group has an adjusted offer to the NFL team. That would include the construction of a temporary grandstand and other transitting facilities, including the relocation of the backstretch.

IT WAS THAT SORT OF DYNAMIC that enabled Dick Duchossois and partners Sheldon Robbins, Ralph Ross and Joe Joyce to host "The Miracle Million" in August 1985. The memorable event was held 24 days after a fire leveled the aged main building.

The foursome followed with the grand, 13-day "International Festival of Racing" in late summer 1986.

One year later, Duchossois was sole proprietor after buying out his associates. He and an energized staff held a somewhat rustic, full-season "tent meet."

In 1988, the track was closed for reconstruction. The Million was held that summer at Toronto's Woodbine Racetrack.

Arlington reopened in June 1989 only to be shuttered by a strategically petulant Duchossois in 1998-99. He reopened in May 2000 and the "merger" with CDI was announced later that year.

Temporary facilities could buy fans four more years of racing at AP.

IT IS BELIEVED THAT the Purchase and Sale agreement between the Bears and Churchill Inc. remains in "the lawyer stage."

A selling price of $197.2 million was announced by CDI on Sept. 29. It is expected to be referenced Thursday morning when Carstanjen hosts his corporation's third-quarter investors teleconference.

Concurrent with the "lawyer stage" is the beginning of the "master planning stage."

That is the earthmoving dialogue between the Bears and officials of the village of Arlington Heights about the full scope and future utilizations of the 326 acres.

A breakdown in that channel could mean no Bears purchase and no Bears move.

It would also mean a scarlet-lettered "L" -- as in "loss" -- on the permanent civic vitae of Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes, village manager Randy Recklaus and Charles Witherington-Perkins, the town's director of planning and community development.

IN AN AUGUST INTERVIEW with racing journalist Ron Flatter, Hayes most notably said that the residential component of the redeveloped land will be "minimal."

So now, the fact is that an overwhelmingly resourced set of nimble operators with a proven track record is communicating with senior Bears management. The resumption of racing at Arlington Park in tandem with a new football colossus would be perceived as a godsend to Hayes, staff and village trustees.

As the Arlington Heights mayor told Christopher Placek of The Daily Herald on June 19:

"Certainly in a perfect world, you'd love to see the Bears and horse racing (on the Arlington Park land). The only question is would you have to at least partially tear down or reconfigure the existing grandstand. ... That's my only concern about trying to do both."

The new group of ambitious visionaries isn't concerned about that. And its core has long-standing links to the highest allies of Carstanjen and CDI in Illinois and at least one member of the Bears hierarchy.

Some might say that they have a way of getting things done.

SO THAT PULSE?

Faint and fading?

Or the sound of a new age of enlightenment for a recalibrating NFL orphan and the new possible saviors of one of the most radiant racetracks in the history of the game?

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

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