By Bill Finley
In years past, opening day at Arlington Park has been an event. It comes at a time when winter is giving way to spring in the Chicago area and takes place at what may be the most beautiful racetrack in the U.S. But Friday's opening day at a track that first ran in 1927 will occur under a pall. To some, it will seem more like the opening to a funeral than the opening to a race meet.
“Under that thinly disguised veil of happiness for this opening day will be the understanding that a great, historic and iconic landmark is about to be removed from the face of the earth,” said trainer Mike Campbell, who is the president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.
In February, Arlington's owner, Churchill Downs Inc., announced that the 326-acre property was being put up for sale. The news had been expected ever since August 2019 when Churchill Downs passed on an opportunity to build a casino at Arlington and announced that it was committing to racing only through the 2021 meet. Unless there is an 11th-hour reprieve, Arlington will race for the last time on Sept. 25.
Churchill has announced that bids on the track must be received by June 15, at which point the track's future will become more clear. Churchill has hired the commercial real estate firm CBRE Group (CBRE) to conduct the sale.
Campbell and other horsemen have been working behind the scenes to come up with a group positioned to buy the track and keep it open for racing beyond this year. The problem, Campbell says, is that there are no assurances Churchill will sell the track to the highest bidder if that bidder intends to keep racing at Arlington.
“We will be part of the bidding process, without a doubt, and we will make a meaningful bid,” Campbell said. “But the question remains, will Churchill allow for there to be live racing beyond this year? I'm not confident at all. I think with the highest bid we still lose.”
It's obvious that Churchill wouldn't sell to anyone looking to build a casino on the property, but it's unclear whether or not they would accept a bid from someone want to keep racing alive at Arlington. Churchill Downs Inc. has had little to say about Arlington's future, other than the track is for sale. On a recent quarterly earnings call with investors, Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen would not predict what was to become of the property.
“I think the ultimate conclusion of that process is something I can't responsibly predict for you because we'll have to see the nature of the bids, and if the property gets bidded, split up between multiple bidders, or if it's a single bidder, et cetera,” Carstanjen said.
Campbell said he has a group that will bid on the track, with a plan to develop part of the property while saving enough land to continue to with racing.
“I am working with a development group that has a very high profile,” he said. “They want to use the land at Arlington, half for industrial and residential use. That would be about 120 acres. And the rest of it, over 170 acres, would be maintained for live racing use.”
Larry Rivelli, the perennial leading trainer at Arlington, is among those trying to find an owner who will keep it as a racetrack. He pegged the odds that the track will make it beyond this year at 50-50.
“They are calling it a last hurrah, but people really don't know what's going on so far as selling the place and whether or not it can be preserved as a racetrack,” Rivelli said. “We've been trying to get groups together. There are just a lot of moving parts. It's not whether someone can afford it. There are people who can. It's just a matter of who they want to sell it to.”
The city of Arlington Heights is also involved in the process. In a story that appeared in the Daily Herald, Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes said there are many possibilities, including a sale to a group looking to build a new stadium for the Chicago Bears.
“From what I'm hearing, there is a great deal of interest in this property from a lot of different individuals and groups being put together for some very exciting possibilities,” Hayes told the publication. “I do expect information will come out sometime — perhaps this summer–about some possibilities that are at least conceptual plans that CBRE, Churchill and the village might be very interested in.”
One thing is certain. Anyone who wants to see live racing this year at Arlington or to attend the final day of racing will have to dig deep into their pockets. There will be no general admission sales for this year's meet, with only reserved seats being put up for sale. They cost anywhere from $15 to $40.
“To charge that much money for people to come to the racetrack is unrealistic,” said veteran trainer Anthony Granitz. “You're going to ask someone to pay $40 to come see a horse race when the casinos let them in for free. They're not doing the fans any favors.”
As a sign of the times, there will be only eight races on the card. The opener is a $4,000 claimer with a purse of just $10,000 and the total purse distribution for the day is just $133,500. The signature race of the meet, the Arlington Million has seen its purse cut from $1 million to $600,000 and the race has been renamed the GI Mister D. S.
“It's one of the most beautiful tracks in the world, so it's really sad that it has come to this,” said trainer Michael Ann Ewing. “It's a sad comment on racing today. It really is constricting. It's really disappointing. What are the horsemen in Illinois going to do?”
Granitz made his first ever start at Arlington in 1985 and said he got his first job in racing working on the Arlington backstretch at age 13. He's better positioned to handle the closure than most because he has a string at Indiana Downs, but Arlington will always be a special place to him.
“We need a miracle,” he said. “I'm not hopeful.”