Arlington Park Future In Flux As Last Horse Races Of Season, And Likely Ever, Set For Saturday

Written By Joe Boozell on September 24, 2021

On Saturday, Sept. 25, Arlington International Racecourse will host its last racing day of the 2021 season. Based on what we know, there is a good chance that horse races will never be run at Arlington again.

Churchill Downs announced earlier this year it would sell the track. And while it hasn’t explicitly said so, there is a near-consensus belief that Churchill Downs will not sell to anyone who wants to use the property for horse racing or casino gambling in Illinois.

Why? Rivers Casino.

Churchill Downs is also the majority owner of Rivers, which is in nearby Des Plaines. The thinking is that Churchill Downs does not want to give Rivers — the most popular casino in Illinois — any competition.

Roy Arnold, the former Arlington president and current bidder for the property, recently told the Chicago Tribune regarding the sale:

“My only conclusion is that they are motivated by the desire to limit competition. This is about protecting Rivers Casino.”

Arnold’s group bid $120 million for the property, but as of mid-September, he hadn’t heard from Churchill Downs in more than a month.

And if there is no longer horse racing at Arlington Park, there will only be two horse racetracks in Illinois remaining.

(AP file photo)

What will Illinois miss about Arlington Park?

Hawthorne Race Course and FanDuel Sportsbook & Horse Racing would be the only horse tracks in IL sans Arlington. Hawthorne is in the Chicagoland area, while FanDuel is in southern Illinois.

Michael McCormick, a horse racing industry expert whose work has appeared in AmericasBestRacing.net, quipped to PlayIllinois.com about what the state will be missing:

“Outside of the Arlington Million, can anyone name another prominent Illinois-based race?”

He continued:

“With apologies to the seaside mountains of southern California and quaintness of Saratoga, Arlington Park is the most visually impressive structure in racing. This meticulously maintained facility, courteous staff, and friendly clientele offered a guaranteed positive first impression to any racing newcomer.”

McCormick added that Hawthorne will carry most of the Illinois horse racing burden now, as FanDuel is unproven in the space. And there is reason to believe FanDuel is more interested in using horse racing as a means to pursue sports betting and casino gambling rather than an end in itself.

Arlington Park opened in 1927. In 1981, it was the sight of the first thoroughbred race with a million-dollar purse.

The International Festival of Racing, held in early August, was its featured event. That’s where the Arlington Millions Stakes took place.

Located in Arlington Heights, the track holds 35,000 seats. Tony Petrillo, Arlington track president and CEO, said of the final day:

It’s going to be a day that I just want to absorb everything about Arlington. I want to be able to walk around, see the people, the fans having a good time having a great experience and talk to some of the horsemen. Maybe there’s a way I convince them that we’ll be back, and these problems that we see today will be resolved.

Could Bears sale save public outrage?

The Chicago Bears submitted an offer to buy the track this summer. If Churchill Downs chooses the Bears, it will have major ramifications.

McCormick believes a Bears sale could help Churchill Downs save face.

In my opinion, only a sale to the Bears can potentially change the narrative from them (Churchill Downs) merely being the people who “killed horse racing in Illinois.”

The Bears would not provide competition for Rivers. In fact, the Bears and Rivers are partners, which is partly why the suburban Bears is a real possibility.

The franchise recently made BetRivers its official sports betting partner, and Rivers is also the official casino of the Bears. The timing is curious, to say the least, and Churchill Downs could announce its choice any day.

We also recently learned that the Bears and the Chicago Park District have feuded over opening a sports betting lounge at Soldier Field. The Bears want it; the Park District is against it. And the Bears are frustrated about that.

Arlington final race day info

If you don’t already have plans to attend Arlington on Saturday but would like to, you are out of luck. Tickets are sold out.

For those with tickets, the gates open at 1 p.m. Saturday. The first post will be at 2:25 p.m., and there will be fireworks at dusk. Races conclude at 6:30 p.m.

For those in the Chicagoland area who would like to attend more horse races this season, Hawthorne will run thoroughbred races throughout the fall.

Get ready to hear a lot about Hawthorne in the future because, speaking of competition, it now has none.

Secretariat gallops at Arlington Park with exercise jockey George Davis at Arlington on June 29, 1973. (AP file photo)
Photo by Paul Beaty / AP
Joe Boozell Avatar
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Joe Boozell

Joe Boozell has also been a college sports writer for NCAA.com since 2015. His work has also appeared in Bleacher Report, FoxSports.com and NBA.com. 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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