A move that killed one of the world’s great racetracks in part to avoid gaming competition with one of the largest and most successful Illinois casinos may have backfired on Churchill Downs, Inc.
When CDI sold much-loved and much-missed Arlington Park thoroughbred racetrack to the Chicago Bears, it was widely believed the sale was to avoid competition for the Rivers Casino Des Plaines CDI owns with BetRivers’ parent company Rush Street Gaming. In 2019, Illinois racetracks were granted the right to add racinos. Horse racing’s share of the revenue would go to purses and track improvements.
The state’s other two remaining horse racing tracks — Hawthorne Race Course and FanDuel Sportsbook & Horse Racing — jumped at the chance (though Hawthorne has yet to start construction on a gaming hall). Yet, inexplicably, CDI declined to add a racino at Arlington.
In the summer of 2020, CDI CEO Bill Carstanjen said:
“The long-term solution is not Arlington Park. The land will have higher and better purposes for something at some point.”
Now comes word from Fox32 Chicago (WFLD-TV) that Arlington Heights village trustees have approved a zoning change allowing a sports betting facility.
Illinois rules allow for sportsbooks at major sports venues. In October, the FanDuel lounge opened at the United Center (though, gambling there still needs approval by the Illinois Gaming Board). A DraftKings sportsbook is currently under construction at Wrigley Field.
That means gambling looks to be very much coming to the new home of the Bears in Arlington. Though the IGB will have the final say.
The village is located just 20 minutes north of the Rivers Casino. Albeit, only Illinois sports betting is on the table now, not a full-blown casino like could have come to the racetrack.
Chicago Bears insisted on sports betting in Arlington
In September 2021, the Chicago Bears signed a $197.2 million purchase agreement for the 326-acre parcel of land where now-closed Arlington Park is located. The plan is to build a new stadium on the site, 30 miles northwest of where the Bears now play at Soldier Field.
And, in October of this year, the team’s owners met with Arlington Heights officials to present the preliminary plans for the new stadium.
The zone change to allow sports betting is a critical part to the Bears’ $5 billion development proposal. The plan is to create an NFL stadium and mixed-used commercial district on the racetrack site.
Did Churchill blunder by killing Arlington?
Many Illinois horse racing fans mourn the loss of what was officially called Arlington International Racecourse, a track Architectural Digest included in a 2014 list of the world’s most beautiful racetracks.
The late Dick Duchossois rebuilt the track and ran it to great acclaim. That is, until he unwittingly spelled the track’s demise by partnering with CDI. Duchossois later sold controlling interest in Arlington to CDI, which closed the track in September of 2021. That ended nearly a century of horse racing on the site of the Chicago area sporting landmark, once home to the Arlington Million.
Yet, CDI’s decision to avoid competing with its Rivers Casino seems shortsighted. A racino at Arlington would have kept that gaming money in CDI’s hands. It also would have saved horse racing at one of the sport’s renowned locations. One assumes that is something the company that operates Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby has some interest in doing.
Instead, the closure of Arlington has thrown Illinois horse racing into chaos.
Today, just one track remains in the Chicago area that used to feature racing at Hawthorne, Maywood Park, Sportsman’s Park and Arlington. And thoroughbred and harness racing interests are sharing Hawthorne.
The schedule is not ideal for either breed. And the purse money is stretched thin while they wait for the racino. That has forced many horsepeople to move to other jurisdictions. They can no longer wait for gaming revenue to improve their horse racing options in Illinois.
Rivers dominates Illinois casinos, but not for long
Besides, in future years Rivers Casino is sure to lose its title as the biggest and most profitable Illinois casino.
Notably, Bally’s has the go-ahead to build a mega-casino in downtown Chicago. In the near term, a temporary casino at the Medinah Temple is expected to open in 2023. Though, the permanent casino, to be built on the current site of the Chicago Tribune printing plant, won’t open before 2026 at the earliest.
Bally’s Chicago will include:
- 3,400 slots
- 173 table games
- 10 food and beverage venues
- a hotel tower with up to 500 rooms and a rooftop bar
- an outdoor music space capable of hosting 1,000 guests
- plus a 3,000-seat, 70,000-square-foot indoor entertainment center
- and an outdoor green space.
By comparison, Rivers Casino has:
- 1,000 slot machines
- 65 table games
- BetRivers sportsbook
- Seven bars, buffets and restaurants
Through October of 2022, Rivers Casino had gross adjusted revenue of more than $436 million. That leads all Illinois casinos by a wide margin. It also amounts to 39% of the total revenue of more than $1.1 billion for all 11 Illinois casinos combined. The next closest casino in revenue is the Grand Victoria Casino which has earned nearly $128 million in 2022, just 29% of what Rivers Casino pulled in.
Also, Rivers Casino also dominates the state’s casinos in terms of attendance. Year-to-date, Rivers has welcomed nearly 2.3 million customers, 30% of the total state casino attendance of 7.6 million. Hollywood Casino Aurora is the next closest in attendance at just over 700,000.