Historic Arlington Park’s Racing Days Numbered as Churchill Downs Plans to Sell Illinois Track

Churchill Downs Inc. announced late Tuesday afternoon that it has begun the process to sell Arlington International Racecourse, the iconic Chicago-area track. It is a move few found surprising.

Arlington sale
Arlington sale
Horses pass the grandstand in an undated photo at Arlington International Racecourse. On Tuesday, Churchill Downs Inc. announced it would begin the process to sell the historic track. (Image: ArlingtonPark.com)

The move means the 2021 racing season, scheduled to run from April 30 to Sept. 25, will in all likelihood be the last for the track, which opened nearly a century ago in Arlington Heights. In a statement, Churchill Downs said it does not expect a sale to close before the end of the meet.

However, the Louisville-based gaming company also announced a commercial real estate firm will market the 326-acre property as a “redevelopment opportunity.”

In a statement, Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen touted the track’s proximity to downtown Chicago and the property’s rail station as key features to the next tenant.

“We expect to see robust interest in the site and look forward to working with potential buyers, in collaboration with the Village of Arlington Heights, to transition this storied location to its next phase,” he said.

“Sad Day” for Community

In an email to Casino.org, Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes said the suburban village will work with Churchill Downs and real estate firm CBRE in hopes the buyer will utilize the “uniqueness” of the property to its fullest extent.

Still, his mood was bittersweet.

Yes, it’s a sad day in Arlington Heights,” Hayes told Casino.org. “Happy that we will have horse racing again at Arlington Park at least this year, as we celebrate a business that has been our main attraction for more than 100 years.

“Arlington Park and its many employees have contributed much to Arlington Heights over the years as a valued community partner, and will be dearly missed.”

In Churchill’s statement, Carstanjen said the company remains “very committed” to maintaining racing in Illinois. That would include either another part of the Chicago area or elsewhere in the state.

“We are exploring potential options with the state and other constituents and remain optimistic that we can find solutions that work for the state, local communities, and the thousands of Illinoisans who make their living directly or indirectly from thoroughbred horse racing,” he said. “We are committed to the Illinois thoroughbred racing industry and will consider all options in working toward opportunities for it to continue into the future.”

Jordan Abudayyeh, press secretary to Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, told Casino.org the state awaits word from Churchill on its racing plans in the state.

“The administration will work with all stakeholders to develop an appropriate solution. We remain committed to ensuring a strong racing industry in our state,” she said.

Purse Dispute Delayed 2020 Meet

The last couple of years have been contentious ones for the track as Illinois horsemen and Churchill officials.

At the heart of the issue, though, was Churchill’s decision not to apply for a casino license at the track. That move would have created a revenue stream horsemen long wanted to generate more money for racing. Instead, prior to Illinois lawmakers passing the expanded gaming bill that gave tracks a chance to offer casino gaming, Churchill Downs purchased a majority stake of Rivers Casino Des Plaines, which is located about 15 minutes away from the track.

Just last week, Churchill Downs announced plans to expand Rivers Des Plaines and make it the first casino in Illinois to have 2,000 gaming seats.

The two sides then failed to reach an agreement on purses for the 2020 meet for months, a move that delayed the start of the meet until July 23.

And while the contract was for two years, late last July Carstanjen caused a stir when he told stock analysts that a 2021 meet was not definite. He also used the call to say that Arlington Park was not a “long-term solution.”

Arlington History

Arlington’s history dates back to October 1927 and for years the track was one of the top places for racing. Forty years ago, the track offered the first million-dollar race in the sport’s history. In no time, the Arlington Million quickly became one of the most popular events in racing. Since its first running in 1981, it has attracted the top older turf horses on an annual basis.

Even after a fire devastated the property in 1985, Arlington’s owners rebuilt and reopened it by 1989.

Churchill took over operations in 2000, and two years later, the track hosted its only Breeders’ Cup Championships.

New Home for the Bears?

As news began circulating about Churchill’s decision, football fans in America’s Second City began speculating on social media about the possibilities of their team buying the Arlington property.

According to numerous reports, the Chicago Bears have a lease through 2033 at Soldier Field. However, the team has been rumored for years as a potential suitor. That happened as recently as last summer as Sports Illustrated’s Bears Digest reported.

Team officials did not respond to a message sent Tuesday evening.

Should the Bears make the move, there property could still maintain a gaming connection. The 2019 expanded gaming law opened the door for professional sports teams in the state to open a sportsbook at or near their stadium. It’s how the Chicago Cubs were able to reach a deal with DraftKings last year.

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