t least two groups have expressed interest in buying Arlington International Racecourse from Churchill Downs and adding a casino to the property.
Four months after Churchill Downs announced it wouldn’t become a “racino” as authorized under a sweeping gambling expansion in Illinois — even though it had lobbied for two decades to win that privilege — the spurned Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association says two groups interested in buying the 92-year-old track have approached it asking if the owners and trainers would support them in a potential bid. At least one of the groups has had discussions with Churchill officials, he added.
“They clearly have the ability and wherewithal to pull it off if, in fact, Churchill has no desire to fulfill the intent of the law,” Mike Campbell, association president, told the Chicago Sun-Times Thursday.
Tax revenue from the gaming expansion law signed over the summer, which also legalized sports betting and opened the door to six new casinos, is earmarked for construction projects in Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature $45 billion statewide capital infrastructure plan.
The owners’ and trainers’ representatives viewed it as the ultimate betrayal when Churchill Downs announced in August it wouldn’t install table games and slot machines at Arlington. The racino concept had long been viewed as a financial savior for Illinois’ struggling horse racing industry, but Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen said high taxes and a “hyper-competitive” gambling market made it an “untenable” investment.
The Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association says the Louisville-based corporation, which bought Arlington in 2000, only wants to stifle potential competition against the other major gambling asset they own 12 miles down the road from the track: Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.
Campbell said he was approached last month by two separate groups floating the idea of purchasing Arlington and operating it as a racino. He declined to identify partners in either group, but said one group has “a great deal of experience” in horse racing.
Churchill Downs has refused to commit to live racing at Arlington beyond 2021. “If Churchill is not going to utilize their license, they should move over,” Campbell said. “We would welcome a new owner of Arlington. The important thing is finding someone with the money. Both [prospective buyers] clearly have the interest and the resources.”
After Churchill Downs announced Arlington wouldn’t become a racino, Pritzker’s office called it “a significant reversal from the years and years of race track owners seeking additional ways to generate revenue to keep their operations working.”
“In fact, the gaming legislation provides several opportunities for significant additional revenues, including table games and slots,” the governor’s office said then. “Just as importantly, the legislation allows the racing industry to flourish instead of facing more years of decline. Just to be clear: actions taken around gaming will be done to benefit the people of Illinois, not solely for the bottom line of individual operators.”
Rumblings of a potential sale come as the track owner remains at loggerheads with the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association over a contract ahead of the racing season slated to begin May 1. The Illinois Racing Board awarded 68 racing dates to Arlington despite the objections of horse owners and trainers and some board members furious over their racino decision.
Campbell says it’s “50-50” whether there’ll be any racing at all this year at Arlington. The horse owners and trainers are seeking an average of $200,000 in daily purse money, but they say Churchill Downs won’t budge from $130,000, well below average purses in neighboring states. “We held on thinking that a casino at the racetrack was going to make a difference for us,” Campbell said. “Now, that’s unlikely.”