By Bill Finley
Churchill Downs announced Tuesday that it has launched a process to sell Arlington Park, which sits on 326 acres of real estate 30 miles northwest of downtown Chicago. The sale will be handled by CBRE Group, a full service commercial real estate firm.
Arlington's future looked bleak in September of 2019 when Churchill Downs made the surprising decision to not take the necessary steps to open a casino on the racetrack property. It is widely believed that Churchill did not want to create competition between an Arlington casino and a casino it owns near the track. Churchill owns the Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, Illinois, which is about seven miles from the Arlington.
After confirming that it did not seek a casino license for the track, Churchill said it would only commit to racing at Arlington through 2021. In Tuesday's press release, Churchill said that it would honor the commitment to hold a meet that is scheduled to begin Apr. 30 and end Sept. 25.
“On the one hand, when you hear that Churchill is going to sell Arlington Park ,your heart immediately goes into your mouth because we are planning on racing there in two months,” said David McCaffrey, the executive director of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. “We are a bit relieved that at least they are committed in writing to racing this summer That's the short-term gain part but we're deeply saddened that it looks like our worst fears will come true, that Arlington Park's last ever race will be held in September.”
In Tuesday's press release, Bill Carstanjen, the CEO of Churchill Downs Incorporated, said the company will pursue opening a racetrack/casino at a new location somewhere in the state. Once Arlington closes, Hawthorne will be the only track in the Chicago area, and Hawthorne and Fairmount Park will be the only tracks left in the state. Arlington opened in 1927.
In the release, Carstanjen touted Arlington as an attractive property for development.
“Arlington's ideal location in Chicago's northwest suburbs, together with direct access to downtown Chicago via an on-site Metro rail station, presents a unique redevelopment opportunity,” he said. “We expect to see robust interest in the site and look forward to working with potential buyers, in collaboration with the Village of Arlington Heights, to transition this storied location to its next phase,” said Bill Carstanjen, CEO of CDI.
As for the potential of opening a new racetrack in the state, Carstanjen said: “We are exploring potential options with the State and other constituents and remain optimistic that we can find solutions that work for the State, local communities and the thousands of Illinoisans who make their living directly or indirectly from Thoroughbred horse racing. We are committed to the Illinois Thoroughbred racing industry and will consider all options in working toward opportunities for it to continue into the future.”
McCaffrey said there would be several obstacles standing in the way if Churchill tried to open a new track in the state.
“Moving the racing license would require an awful lot of regulatory steps and probably changes to the state statutes,” he said. “It would be much easier said than done. To us, this is not a good solution. The good solution for us was to make Arlington Park the biggest and best racino in the country, bar none. Because of its location, its history, because there is a train station right at the track, it was the perfect spot for a casino. None of those things will exist in a place built somewhere else and I can promise you it would not have the grandeur of Arlington Park.”
Finding a location in a saturated market where a casino and racetrack would thrive will not be easy. There are already 10 casinos in Illinois, which does not include the casinos that have yet to open at Hawthorne and Fairmount.