By T. D. Thornton
As the only member out of 10 on the Illinois Racing Board (IRB) to directly address the pending closure of Arlington International Racecourse and the devastating effect it will have on the state's racing circuit, commissioner Alan Henry said at Thursday's monthly meeting that a losing bidder in the track's sale is still working behind the scenes to fashion a deal to keep racing alive alongside a new football stadium on the 326-acre parcel.
Back on Sept. 29, Churchill Downs, Inc. (CDI), the gaming corporation that owns Arlington, announced the signing of a $197.2 million purchase and sales agreement that would transfer the crown jewel of Illinois racing to the Chicago Bears for the planned construction of a new stadium and mixed-use development.
With Arlington out of the equation for 2022, Thoroughbred dates in greater Chicago will wither to just 76 programs over two seasonal meets at Hawthorne Race Course, which will also host 75 dates of Standardbred racing next year.
One day after the Arlington sale became public, the state's Senate Executive Gaming Committee met to discuss the future of horse racing in Illinois. Henry said at the Oct. 14 IRB meeting that he came away “with a bad feeling” after listening to that hearing.
“I get that it looks bleak,” Henry continued. “But 30-year Marine Corps veteran Roy Arnold, the front man for the underbidders, made it clear to the subcommittee that he is not retreating.”
Arnold formerly worked for CDI as Arlington's president, starting in 2006 and resigning in 2010. When the track was put up for sale earlier this year, he partnered with a group of developers and investors to try to buy the property. That group's bid was the only known offer to preserve racing at Arlington.
When the Bears won the bidding process, Arnold said at the next-day Senate hearing that he would be willing to either work with the new owners to keep the track operational on 125 acres of the site or to step in and pursue the purchase if the football team backed out.
Henry said that a purchase and sales agreement is “not evidence of a done deal. There are still many variables out there. Just one of them is that at any moment, Chicago's mayor could throw some serious cards on the table [regarding a counter-proposal to keep the Bears in their current downtown home] now that the Bears have called her bluff.”
Henry continued: “Sure, Arlington Park's permanent closing may be likely, But it is not inevitable. Why? Because a Bears-Arlington Park partnership makes too much sense to blithely dismiss. And because if the Bears withdraw, [Arnold's group] is standing at the ready.”
Henry said that as “everyone in the industry knows, the 2022 racing calendar is a stopgap that is likely unsustainable beyond next year. Half a season for either breed is simply not enough.”
One idea that has been floated is for a harness track to be built on the site of a former state-owned mental health facility in the village of Tinley Park, about 30 miles southwest of Chicago. That would allow Hawthorne to transition over to full-time Thoroughbred racing, and each breed would have its own year-round racetrack.
“The consensus among horsemen is the construction of a harness track in Tinley Park is an integral piece of the solution, and should be treated as a priority. But right now that is just not happening,” Henry said.
“As I hear it, some Thoroughbred trainers are now considering moving to Florida, Louisiana and Arkansas at the end of the current Hawthorne meet and not coming back in late winter,” Henry said. “Some are also looking at Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana, and other states for 2022 given the need to lock in stalls next summer.”
Henry continued: “Then there's the reality that advance-deposit wagering platforms are grabbing rapidly increasing percentages of the betting handle. That means money is increasingly being diverted away from the [horsemen's] already paltry purses. The laws governing that split have to be rewritten to better ensure a healthy industry.”
Henry also noted that although racinos have been legal in the state since June 2019, none are yet operational at either Hawthorne or FanDuel Sportsbook and Horse Racing (the rebranded Fairmount Park), so purses aren't being supplemented by gaming revenues.
Henry suggested that moving forward, there should be a standing item on every IRB agenda for Hawthorne and FanDuel to update their progress on building racinos, and also “to address the harness track situation.”
But beyond one commissioner thanking Henry for his “particularly interesting” comments, no other IRB members voiced support for Henry's suggestion about the standing agenda item. And none of them chimed in about the state of the racing circuit when given the chance to speak during the “commissioner comments” section of the agenda.
This “elephant in the room” pattern of largely ignoring the most dire and pressing racing issue in the state has persisted at IRB meetings for the better part of 2021. With the exception of Henry, who has been outspoken about Arlington's pending closure for six consecutive IRB meetings since CDI declared the property would be sold for non-horse-racing purposes, the other nine IRB commissioners have, for the most part, maintained a stunning silence about the collapse of Chicago racing.
So what other matters did the IRB take up on Thursday? The proceedings were almost entirely officious.
By 10-0 votes, the IRB approved the licensing of an outrider and an entry clerk for Hawthorne's upcoming harness meet, disbursed Quarter Horse purse funds to FanDuel for the four races that track carded this past season, and signed off on granting a pari-mutuel tax credit to tracks and off-track betting licensees.
The IRB also had to bring back and ratify its 2022 dates order from last month because the way it had been voted in didn't comply with the state's open meetings act. This required commissioners to electronically sign the related documentation, and the meeting stalled briefly when several commissioners couldn't figure out how to do it.
The IRB also spent time during Thursday's public meeting congratulating a staffer for running a marathon, and discussed the upcoming move to new office space, which was described as a more modernized “new playground.”