By Bill Finley
The future of Arlington Park remains very much up in the air, but Roy Arnold is convinced that racing can prosper there and is hopeful that he can spearhead an effort to insure that one of America's most beautiful racetracks remains a racetrack for years to come.
Arnold should know. He was the track's president during better times, from 2006-2010, and is currently the president and CEO of Endeavor Hotel Group. Arnold was instrumental in bringing together a consortium interested in purchasing Arlington Park from Churchill Downs. Churchill announced in February that it was putting the track up for sale and set Tuesday as a deadline to receive bids. Other than Arnold's group, it is not known who made bids and for how much.
“We have this iconic jewel which is known throughout the world and people are accepting as inevitable the fact that it's going to be bulldozed,” he said. “For the industry to stand by while that happens would be tragic.”
Endeavor sent out a press release Tuesday in which it said that it had joined forces with three other companies as well as “high net worth individuals.” The plan is to create a whole new Arlington, just one facet of what Arnold called a “diversified, four-seasons sports and entertainment district.” The foot print of the racetrack itself will be reduced and the land that is left over will be used to build an arena suitable for a minor league hockey team, a low-density housing development and a 60-acre industrial space. The ancillary businesses will create a revenue stream that will make it easier to justify keeping racing on the site. He also said that if the group takes over Arlington it will be able to offer sports wagering.
Arnold would not disclose how much his group bid, but was confident that it will be enough to secure a deal.
“We have the passion, we have the capital, we have the vision,” he said. “Now all we need is the opportunity. That started with our putting the bid in. Now we have to let the process unfold. We believe we will have one of the highest, if not the highest, bid.”
Arnold's group has the backing of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which has worked behind the scenes to find a potential buyer interested in maintaining racing. While Arnold realizes there are plenty of challenges operating a racetrack, especially one that does not receive revenue from a casino, in the modern era, but he said there's no reason why racing in Chicago can't succeed.
“People have concluded that absent subsidies this is a dead sport, that if you take away the supplements that go toward the major racing states that still have good programs that it would be difficult to see them continuing,” he said. “We can create a different model that will work. The fact is the track is profitable and can be profitable as a racetrack.”
Arnold foresees operating a “boutique” style meet that would be shorter than Arlington's current season. That will help with the purse level, currently a problem with Arlington offering some of the smallest purses in the sport. The plan also calls for lowering the takeout to make the product more attractive to bettors.
While Arnold and his partners believe an on-going racing operation at Arlington will work, it's clear that the bid also involves a desire to keep racing going at a track that has been around since 1927.
“There is for some reason an inability of some in the industry to understand that the demise of Arlington in America's third largest media market would be a catastrophe for the sport,” he said. “We are doing this because we have a passion for thoroughbred racing.”
But there's only so much that Arnold can do. Churchill Downs is under no obligation to accept their offer, even if it is the largest one submitted. WGN Television reported that there are fewer than 10 prospective buyers and that “a couple” of the bids came from groups interested in maintaining Arlington as a racetrack. WGN speculated that the Chicago Bears may be involved and may be interested in building a new stadium on the racetrack property.
In May, the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association urged the Illinois Attorney General to launch an antitrust probe of Churchill Downs, alleging it had taken steps to preclude casino gaming and diminish pari-mutuel wagering at Arlington. While Churchill never applied for a casino license for Arlington, it is heavily involved in gaming in the state and is said to be interested in opening new casinos.
Additionally, the Village of Arlington Heights approved an ordinance to prevent racetrack owner Churchill Downs from prohibiting any future buyer from continuing to operate the facility as a racetrack.
Is it in Churchill's best interests, politically, to sell the property to a group interested in keeping racing alive?
“Churchill has two ways of going,” said Mike Campbell, the president of the horsemen's group. “They can reject this offer, but if they do it brings up all sorts of issues about anti-trust allegations that are currently floating around that the Attorney General may be looking at. I know there is an effort among legislators to make that happen. Many legislators are very concerned about how this all came down. If I were Churchill, I would take a look at all that. They have other interests and bigger fish to fry in Illinois than eliminating horse racing at Arlington Park. I believe they might finally capitulate and allow this to happen for the single reason that have their eye on a casino in Waukegan and in the city of Chicago. It's up to them. The hard way or the easy way. It's their choice.”
The 2021 meet is set to conclude Sept. 25. Churchill has already said this will be the last ever meet at Arlington under their ownership. There's nothing to do between now and then but wait, and hope that Arlington is sold to a group that believes in the future of racing in Chicago.