Possible Suitors for Arlington Park, But Will Churchill Sell to a Racetrack Operator?

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Arlington Park | Horsephotos

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With the track having been put up for sale and with parent company Churchill Downs Inc. failing to commit to a meet after this year's season, Arlington Park's days may be numbered. But there may be a flicker of hope. Mike Campbell, the president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, told the TDN that he knows of a number of companies and individuals interested in buying the track and keep it open for racing.

“There is interest, for sure, from different parties that wish to keep it just as a racetrack,” Campbell said. “They're interested in developing part of the property and keeping the rest of it for live racing. There has been interest from multiple parties.”

Campbell declined to disclose just who was interested in buying the track.

The picture for Arlington became bleak when Churchill failed to apply for a casino license in 2019, saying in a release that it would be “financially untenable” to have a casino at the track. It is widely believed that Churchill does not want a casino at Arlington because it would siphon away business from its successful casino in nearby Des Plaines, Illinois. In February, the track took another step toward extinction when Churchill announced that it was putting the property on the market.

Campbell said those interested in buying the track have only begun the process.

“It hasn't evolved past the point of conversations, discussions,” he said. “There has been nothing in depth.”

At deadline for this story, Arlington General Manager and Senior Vice President Tony Petrillo had not returned a call seeking comment.

Though Campbell said he was a bit more optimistic about Arlington's future than he was before hearing from potential buyers, he said he is afraid that Churchill will not sell the property to anyone wishing to keep racing there. When asked why he had come to that conclusion, he pointed to recent comments made by CDI's CEO Bill Carstanjen. In a recent conference call with shareholders, Carstanjen said: “We will conduct racing in 2021 at Arlington while moving forward with the transaction to sell this highly desirable land for other non-horse racing mixed used options.”

One individual, who asked to remain anonymous, said his group had reached out to Churchill in hopes that they could begin negotiations to buy the track, only to be rebuffed.

“We reached out to them as a group of horsemen to see if they would allow us to pursue buying the track for pari-mutuel racing only and were told that Churchill had no interest in talking to us,” the source said.

When announcing that the track was being put up for sale, Carstanjen made no mention of it possibly remaining as a racetrack.

“Arlington's ideal location in Chicago's northwest suburbs, together with direct access to downtown Chicago via an on-site Metra rail station, presents a unique redevelopment opportunity. We expect to see robust interest in the site and look forward to working with potential buyers,” Carstanjen said in a statement.

Campbell estimated that the property, which sits on 326 acres 30 miles northwest of downtown Chicago, was worth about $125 million. “It's worth a lot less than people have been led to believe,” Campbell said.

Campbell said he could not speculate why Churchill might refuse to sell the track to anyone wishing to keep it open and running for horse racing, but he remained pessimistic that the property would be sold to anyone committed to racing.

“It would do them no harm and it would not put them at a competitive disadvantage if there continued to be racing at Arlington Park beyond 2021,” he said. “There would be no competition for their casino. Gamblers who gamble on slot machines and table games, they are a different breed from horseplayers. The frustrating part for those of us who want to save this historical, iconic racetrack is the fact that everything you can glean from this speaks to Churchill wanting to not allow even racing there. That's baffling to me.”

The 2021 meet is scheduled to end Sept. 25.

Churchill management has released statements that raise the possibility that they will want to keep a racing license in the possibility that they could open a racino somewhere else in the state. Campbell said he was not optimistic that a new track would be built.

If Churchill goes ahead with its current plans, racing in the Chicago area would be down to just one track, Hawthorne. Hawthorne is obligated to also hold a harness racing meet, which means the opportunity to run Thoroughbreds there is limited.

“Arlington Park is a wonderful institution that's been part of our society for almost 100 years and I'm afraid they're going to run a bulldozer through it,” Campbell said.

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