Plan For New Chicago Track Forging Ahead Despite Big Differences In Gaming Law Interpretations

The potential future home of Lincoln Land Downs | Courtesy Ron Awsumb


An Illinois businessman with a background in both real estate development and racehorses is actively putting together an investment team to build a new $180-million Thoroughbred racino about 35 miles south of Chicago. But even a year before the first shovels might break ground, controversy is swirling because of different interpretations of the enabling gaming law that is a linchpin for the project to proceed.

Ronald Awsumb, 68, who has owned and bred Thoroughbreds and also worked as a bloodstock consultant alongside his family's chief business of building malls and condominiums, told TDN in a Mar. 22 phone interview that he is 18 months into the planning process for bringing to life a track that he envisions as Lincoln Land Downs in a village called Richton Park.

“With the closing of Arlington we felt there was quite a void in the Chicago market for horse racing, and actually in the whole state,” Awsumb said. “We've looked at different potential properties all throughout the state. It is an ambitious project, and it's important that we keep it to scale.”

The project does not yet have the public support of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (ITHA) because of the varying interpretations of the law.

“Let's not forget that this is Illinois. And anything relative to horse racing in Illinois is complicated and cumbersome,” David McCaffrey, the executive director of the ITHA, told TDN.

“A new racino in Richton Park is living up to those past performances,” McCaffrey added.

A spokesperson for Hawthorne Race Course, the Chicago area's only remaining Thoroughbred track, responded to a request for comment with an email that stated, “This idea is so speculative that anyone actually involved in the ongoing operations of Illinois horseracing, or who is truly interested in its future, should not take it seriously.”

McCaffrey explained the ITHA's understanding of the law this way: “The statute, as it stands now, only allows for a Standardbred track. So on the part of building a new racetrack and racino, he's within the law to do so. But two things need to happen: one, they need to have permission from Hawthorne, because it's within 35 miles of Hawthorne. And two, it has to be a Standardbred track. There's been some very cursory talk about another Thoroughbred outlet somewhere, but relative to that being at Lincoln Land any time soon I think is putting the cart way before the horse.”

Awsumb chalked up the views of the ITHA and Hawthorne as being based on “misinformation.” He added that his legal team has confirmed for him that Hawthorne's 35-mile veto power applies only to a Standardbred–and not a Thoroughbred–racino, and that he believes his racino application will be lawful based on Section 56 of the Illinois Horse Racing Act and Section 7.7 of the Illinois Gambling Act passed in 2019.

“The law is actually very clear. It states that anyone that has operating control of a racetrack anywhere in the state of Illinois may apply for a casino license,” Awsumb said.

“We've spent the last six months confirming that with the Illinois Gaming Board [IGB], and they're the only ones whose opinion really matters,” Awsumb said. “We met with the executive director and the general counsel two weeks ago, and they said if we had operating control of a racetrack and had received a racing license for dates, that we would meet the standard to apply for a casino license. I've been telling the horsemen that for six months, but you can't convince anybody, I guess.”

The location Awsumb has settled on would fit a 7- to 7.5-furlong main dirt track with a turf course inside of it. A temporary casino would go up first, to be eventually replaced by a larger, more permanent version, with the eventual possibility of building out a 100-room hotel and entertainment space.

“Our location is right off Interstate 57, which is a very highly trafficked area, and even though it's suburban, it's kind of a rural setting,” Awsumb said. “It's real pastoral. We have 140 acres that we're planning on building on. It's beautiful. It overlooks about a thousand acres of farmland. We have an option [to buy] it, and actually have the ability to get more land. There's a lot there.”

Awsumb said he is not yet ready to divulge full details about his investment partners because the deal is still a work in progress.

“We're in the financing process. It's still a little proprietary,” Awsumb said. “I can't tell you exactly the names behind it, but there are several large gaming companies that really want to diversify in the Chicago market. And we've also been working with a company in Kentucky that is involved in racing. I'm hoping in the next 60 days we'll fully list who our partners are.

“The timeline is we're putting the financing process together and finalizing the group,” Awsumb said. “We have to apply by July 31 with the Illinois Racing Board (IRB) to receive any dates in 2025. There's no plan to have any extensive racing in 2025. It would more likely be to get the track ready to have a couple of days of racing toward the end of the year just to establish the racing license, because we have to establish the racing license to go before the gaming board to get the casino license. Hopefully, we'd start construction on the track early next year when the weather breaks.”

Originally, Awsumb said, his intent was to build a harness racino, and he was aware that Hawthorne had veto power over that plan.

“They declined to give us written consent, which is their legal right to do. So we started looking at other ways to get this going, and there's nothing stopping us from doing a Thoroughbred track. The statute only applies to a Standardbred track, and obviously, we've confirmed that with [the IRB and IGB],” Awsumb said.

“There's kind of been disinformation the last few years that only the existing racetracks could get a casino license,” Awsumb continued. “The project is, of course, dependent on that. You need that alternative source of revenue to make the business model work. There's no guarantee you're going to get the license–you still have to go through all the [state vetting process]. But we have been told that we would be able to apply for that, and that was the big hurdle that we needed to clear to make the project go.”

Obtaining the temporary casino license is crucial, Awsumb said.

“We would like to do a temporary casino, which you are allowed to have for three years. The plan would be maybe to have 400-500 gaming positions in a temporary facility to get revenue coming in. It's very attractive to investors if you can get revenue coming in early like that. And then the process would be to have the permanent casino in approximately 2028 to 2029,” Awsumb said.

Awsumb said he wants to buck the industry trend of existing racinos that focus on gaming first and horses second. He wants it the other way around.

“We don't have quite enough room to do a mile dirt track, but we do have a lot of room for a really nice backstretch. We're going to have state-of-the-art barns, and an equine aquatics center and backstretch housing. I personally feel that horses are in their stalls too much, and we want trainers to be able to get them out an exercised at all times of the day.”

Awsumb said he's even talked to the Chicago Bears football team, which owns the defunct Arlington International Racecourse, about relocating the sod from the old grass course to Lincoln Land Downs.

“They still have been maintaining the turf course there beautifully, and they've been very open to that idea, but we're still in the testing phase to see if it would transfer properly,” Awsumb said.

Awsumb admitted that he has had zero talks with Hawthorne about forming a Thoroughbred circuit. Nor is he even close to negotiating a contract with the ITHA.

“I wouldn't say [Hawthorne would be] very supportive of us, really,” Awsumb said. “I have talked to the horsemen. They've been supportive but weary, like 'We've heard this before' kind of thing.”

Asked what type of racing season and purse structure he envisioned, Aswumb put it this way:

“Obviously we would like some summer dates if we have a turf course. We'd like to be able to get to like $250,000 at least in daily purses. So you could do maybe 75 to 80 dates a year, maybe race three days a week six months out of the year.

“The projections are we can do $100 million a year in adjusted gross revenue when we have the full casino, and approximately 13% of that goes toward purses,” Awsumb said. “When you combine that with off-track-betting parlors [and their] projected handle, we think we could get to $15 to $20 million in purses a year. And if we could do that, I think the horsemen would be happy.”

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