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Churchill Downs Inc. to Sell Arlington International

Arlington does affirm commitment to running 2021 race dates.

Arlington International Racecourse

Arlington International Racecourse

Coady Photography

One of North America's top racing venues may soon be no more as Churchill Downs Incorporated announced Feb. 23 that it officially has launched a process to sell the Arlington International Racecourse property. 

CBRE Group, a commercial real estate company, will bring the redevelopment opportunity of the 326-acre property in Arlington Heights, Ill., to market on behalf of CDI. The property will be marketed for development.

CDI said while it's selling the property, it's committed to pursuing relocation of Arlington's racing license somewhere else in the state. The company believes there will be strong interest in purchasing the property.

"Arlington's ideal location in Chicago's northwest suburbs, together with direct access to downtown Chicago via an on-site Metra rail station, presents a unique redevelopment opportunity. 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," said CDI CEO Bill Carstanjen. "In the meantime, we are very committed to pursuing the relocation of Arlington's racing license to another community in the Chicagoland 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. 

"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."

CDI said it's committed to running Arlington's 2021 race dates April 30-Sept. 25. CDI does not expect any sale of the Arlington site to close prior to the conclusion of Arlington's 2021 race meet or that the sale process will impact Arlington's racing operations this year.

While CDI officials previously have discussed such a move, the announcement Tuesday brings another level of reality to the situation. It's quite a turnaround from less than two years ago when it seemed the future of the track and Illinois racing would be on stable ground when the state authorized tracks to offer casino gaming and sports wagering.

While Hawthorne Race Course and Fairmount Park would soon embrace that opportunity, CDI balked. CDI owns a majority interest in Rivers Casino, the state's largest and most successful gaming facility. Arlington is located less than 15 miles from Rivers Casino.

"It's a very complicated bill, and the gaming landscape now is incredibly competitive," said Arlington president Tony Petrillo at the time—June 28, 2019. "We're still analyzing the bill and what might happen in the fall (during the legislative veto session) to see how we can best take advantage of the opportunities that are open to us."

Still, optimists hoped CDI would find a way to make things work but in the year that would follow, CDI expressed interest in moving the license. In the summer Carstanjen said moving the license to a new location made more sense.

"Long-term for Arlington Park, as we've explained on these calls and we've explained to the state, it doesn't work," Carstanjen said in a July conference call with analysts and investors. "The economics don't work. It's not a viable solution. We'd like to give the state, given everything that's going on, an opportunity to help us find a better long-term solution. But the long-term solution is not Arlington Park. That land will have a higher and better purpose for something else at some point." 

As CDI opposes added casino competition at Arlington, sale of the property as a venue to continue racing seems a longshot. Should racing at Arlington end after the 2021 season, it would fall just short of celebrating the 100th anniversary of its launch in 1927.

In a statement from the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, ITHA president Mike Campbell commented: "The license is not Churchill’s to move. Moreover, the notion that a seasoned gaming operator would relocate a racing license away from a state of the art, modern racing facility near the heart of the Chicago metropolitan region to some yet-to-be-determined location is absurd. Churchill is just trying to obfuscate from the fact that it cares only about maximizing profit and will gladly sacrifice the spirit of Illinois law and the livelihood of working Illinoisans to serve its greed."

The track has enjoyed a rich history. The Arlington Classic would become one of the top races for 3-year-olds in the country, drawing the likes of Triple Crown winners Gallant Fox and Omaha in the 1930s. Stars including Nashua, Dr. Fager, and Alydar would follow in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

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Arlington became the world's first track to offer a $1 million race for Thoroughbreds when it launched the Arlington Million Stakes (G1T) in 1981.

Fire destroyed the Arlington clubhouse in July 1985 but the track pulled things together to offer the Arlington Million Aug. 25, as some 35,000 fans watched from tents and temporary facilities. The "Miracle Million" would earn the track an Eclipse Award.

Owner Richard Duchossois would rebuild the track—a lavish, modern racing facility recognized as one of the best in North American racing. It has maintained that status to this day.

Despite the sparkling facility, Duchossois would have to close the track for two seasons, 1998 and 1999, before selling to CDI in 2000—a deal that saw Duchossois pick up nearly four million shares of CDI common stock. 

Confident Chicago area racing fans would support such ventures, Arlington has been willing to put races together to draw top equine stars. In 1973 it landed Secretariat for his first start after the Triple Crown in the Arlington Invitational, drawing more than 41,000 fans; and 23 years later it would attract Cigar, who secured his 16th straight win before more than 34,000 fans in the Arlington Citation Challenge Invitational Stakes.

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In 2002 Arlington hosted the Breeders' Cup.

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Bob Kieckhefer contributed to this story.