By Bill Finley
Once considered among the most beautiful facilities in racing, Arlington Park met the wrecking ball Friday.
The work on the exterior portion of the track started after the Arlington Heights Building and Safety Department approved a request from the Chicago Bears for a building permit that allowed the demolition of the grandstand and other structures on the property. In February, the Bears completed its purchase of the 326-acre property from Churchill Downs, Inc. for $197.2 million. The Bears have yet to fully commit to building a new stadium on the property.
Churchill announced its plans to sell the track in February of 2021. Arlington last raced on Sept. 25, 2021.
According to the Daily Herald, the process began at 1 pm local time with a pair of excavators tearing into the southeast corner of the grandstand. About 25 minutes later, the first row of seats in that corner began to collapse. The plan, the Herald reported, is for the teardown to be done piecemeal, with crews beginning work at one end of track and finishing at the other.
It is expected that the grandstand will be fully demolished by the end of the summer and that the grandstand entrances will be gone by the end of June. At some point this fall, the offices, paddock and jockey's quarters will be demolished. The Herald reports that the Bears will pay $3.8 million to have the track demolished.
In a May 4 letter sent by Bears President and CEO Kevin Warren to the superintendents of three area school districts, the Bears official said that the demolition of the buildings would “reduce our operating cost and lower the assessed value of the land so that we can realize a realistic property tax during the predevelopment period.” The Bears are in the midst of negotiations with local schools over the amount of property taxes the football team should pay over the next two years. The Bears have said that high property taxes have put their plans to build a stadium on the Arlington site in jeopardy.
— WGN Morning News (@WGNMorningNews) June 16, 2023
That Arlington is now in the process of being torn down is the latest chapter in a story that has been nothing but bad news for horse racing. The track opened in 1927 and was the jewel in what was then a robust Chicago racing circuit. Hawthorne is the only track left in the Chicago area.
On July 31, 1985 a fire completely destroyed the Arlington grandstand and clubhouse. Miraculously, under track owner Richard Duchossois, temporary bleachers were constructed and the GI Arlington Million was run that year on Aug. 25 in front of 35,000 fans. In need of a new grandstand, Duchossois spared no expense and built a new track from the ground up. The new Arlington opened on June 28, 1989 and was widely hailed as a marvel, one of the nicest tracks in the world. In 2002, Arlington hosted the Breeders' Cup.
Arlington appeared to have new life after casinos were legalized at Illinois racetracks. But, in a move that stunned many within the industry, Churchill Downs did not take steps to secure a casino license. It has been suggested that Churchill did not want to open a casino at Arlington because it would compete with a casino the company owns in nearby Des Plaines, Illinois.