Despite a bid of more than $120 million, a group hoping to buy Arlington International Racecourse to continue horse racing there fears it may be a lost cause.
Roy Arnold, former president of the track and CEO of Endeavor Properties, said he was one of three finalists in the running to purchase the track in Arlington Heights.
But since hearing that from track owner Churchill Downs Inc. more than a month ago, he hasn’t heard back, he said. That’s a sign to him that they may go with another bidder such as the Chicago Bears — and doom any chances of racing there.
“My only conclusion is that they are motivated by the desire to limit competition,” Arnold said. “This is about protecting Rivers Casino.”
Arnold is not the first to suggest that Churchill Downs’ ownership in Rivers Casino in Des Plaines is driving its shutdown of Arlington Park. This spring, the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemens Association, which represents horse owners and trainers, wrote to Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, asking that his office investigate potential anti-competitive or antitrust violations by Churchill Downs.
Churchill Downs refused to seek a casino gambling license for the track, and failed to get authorization to hold racing at the track next year, which in turn could cut off lucrative off-track betting and advance deposit wagering. Those actions were designed to prevent any future owner from operating horse racing or gambling at the track to prevent competition with Rivers Casino, in the horsemen’s view, president Mike Campbell said.
In 2018, Churchill Downs announced its plans to become majority owner of Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, buying it in a deal with owners Neil Bluhm and Midwest Gaming, an affiliate of Rush Street Gaming. Previously, Rivers had lobbied for years for lawmakers to allow a casino at its track.
But after buying Rivers, Churchill Downs CEO William Castanjen announced that it would not operate gambling at the track because it could make more money doing so at Rivers, which doesn’t have to fund purses for the horse races. The casino is about a 20-minute drive from the track.
A spokeswoman for the attorney general said prosecutors received the horsemen’s complaint, but had no further comment.
In June, just days after the Chicago Bears announced they had submitted a bid to buy Arlington Park, Rivers Casino announced that it reached an exclusive deal to partner with the team on casino and sport gambling. Many observers thought that suggested the Bears might be favored to buy the track as well.
Churchill has not announced any finalists publicly. Other bidders who’ve proposed mixed-use development of the 326-acre site include Chicago real estate developer Glenstar Properties and UrbanStreet Group in Schaumburg.
Despite reports that another bidder including prominent horse trainer Ken McPeak was trying to keep horse racing at the site, McPeak said his team had considered the idea months ago but couldn’t get financing.
Arnold said his team’s proposal would include an ice hockey arena, potentially for a minor league team, along with senior housing, condominiums and apartments, an entertainment district with retail and restaurants, and would potentially include the Bears, if they so desired.
Churchill Downs officials didn’t answer questions about claims it was trying to prevent gambling and racing at Arlington, but issued this statement:
“There was strong interest by many qualified bidders to purchase the property, and our team continues to work through the sale process. In order to preserve the integrity of that process, we have executed confidentiality agreements with each bidder, and we intend to uphold our obligations under those agreements. As such, we will not comment on any negotiations or speculation by others. CDI will provide an update on the sale process at the appropriate time.”
In light of Churchill Downs’ actions, the horsemen believe the Illinois Gaming Board should take into account Churchill Downs’ actions as it reviews any involvement in bids to build new casinos in Chicago or Waukegan, Campbell said.
In early July, Churchill Downs said it would announce the winning bidder in the coming weeks, but that has yet to happen. Arlington Park plans to set off a fireworks show when it runs its last race Sept. 25.