Horses Or Bears? Tension Brews Between Churchill Downs-Arlington Heights Amid Sale

Written By Joe Boozell on May 7, 2021
arlington racecourse horse racing

Several key Arlington Heights officials, including Mayor Tom Hayes, want horse racing to remain at Arlington International Racecourse.

The track’s owner, Churchill Downs Inc., put it up for sale a few months ago. But now, the mayor, village manager, eight trustees and members of the community development department have taken steps to make horse racing a possibility even after the sale.

City puts restrictive covenant in place

Earlier this week, the village board unanimously approved an ordinance barring Churchill Downs from placing a restrictive covenant tied to horse racing and gambling on the land.

That signals Arlington Heights’ desire to have horse racing and/or casino gambling on the 326-acre property for years to come.

Churchill Downs will ultimately control the sale, but Arlington Heights appears to be trying to steer it in a particular direction.

City officials also took the first steps in making zoning changes that would prohibit 23 specific types of use of the property, including “kiddie” parks, funeral parlors, adult businesses, carwashes, wholesale offices and currency exchanges.

Hayes said, via the Daily Herald:

“It really is incumbent upon us as a diligent village that has 326 acres of prime real estate up for sale within our borders that we take all necessary actions and precautions to ensure that a high quality development is redeveloped there. We’re trying to attract really serious investors that want to redevelop this very prime piece of real estate into something that’s befitting of our community and the region.”

The fear is that Churchill Downs wouldn’t want racing of any kind of gambling at Arlington. That’s because they’re the majority owners of Rivers Casino, and don’t want the competition.

If horse racing shuttered at Arlington, there would only be two tracks left in Illinois: Hawthorne Race Course and FanDuel Sportsbook and Horse Racing.

One prospective buyer has eye on horse racing

Roy Arnold, the Arlington Park president and CEO from 2006-10, will attempt to purchase the track on behalf of an investor group.

According to Paulick Report, he sent a letter to the village’s board of trustees announcing his intentions. Arnold has support from Mike Campbell, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association.

Churchill Downs will have the final say on any sale, though, even if Arlington Heights takes measures to restrict certain buyers.

We’ll soon learn more about just how much Churchill Downs cares about competition for Rivers. The two facilities are only about a 20-minute drive apart.

Trustee John Scaletta said:

“It’s important to leave the door open that it could possibly remain a track because there (are) so many people who wanna see horse racing continue, not only in the state of Illinois, but across our country. Hopefully, somebody will come to Arlington Heights with a desire to continue horse racing.

“But if not, we’ve at least laid the groundwork of what it is that we are not looking for, and hopefully they come with a development that will be beneficial for the village of Arlington Heights because it is a very important piece of property.”

What about the Arlington Park Bears?

If you’ve been following this story, you know about the Bears-Arlington buzz that’s been brewing for months.

The Bears’ Soldier Field lease ends in 2033. However, Hayes recently said in an interview with Fox 32 Chicago that the Bears are “seriously considering” moving to Arlington Heights:

“Certainly, the Arlington Park site is available and we would consider the Chicago Bears a great fit for that particular site. I think the Bears are seriously considering it because it’s such a unique piece of property. It has so much going for it in terms of its location in the northwest suburbs where a lot of their audience is.”

Chicago Mayor Lightfoot responded to that, saying:

“I’ve seen a couple of reports (of a possible move), but a couple of data points that I think you should be aware of are the Bears have a lease with Soldier Field until 2033, and the NFL doesn’t let any teams break their leases.”

Hayes added that if there is enough desire to get out of a lease, it can happen. Lightfoot’s comments also drew some eye rolls from Chicago media members, such as Adam Hoge:

arlington park plans

It will be fascinating to see how this all unfolds.

Photo by Paul Beaty / AP
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Joe Boozell

Joe Boozell has also been a college sports writer for since 2015. His work has also appeared in Bleacher Report, and Growing up, Boozell squared off against both Anthony Davis and Frank Kaminsky in the Chicagoland basketball scene ... you can imagine how that went.

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