Arlington park race track closing? Suburban horse racing course for sale as owners look to transfer license elsewhere

Arlington race track plans to run 2021 season as scheduled

ByRavi Baichwal and ABC 7 Chicago Digital Team via WLS logo
Thursday, February 25, 2021
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The future of an Arlington Heights horse track is in question as its owners look to transfer its racing license elsewhere.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. (WLS) -- The future of horse racing in the Chicago area is in question Wednesday, now that the Arlington International Racecourse is for sale.

Right now, the owners of the track in the northwest suburbs said they are committed to running the 2021 racing season as scheduled.

But they hope to sell the land to a developer and transfer the racing license to a different location in Illinois.

RELATED: Arlington Park racecourse reopens with restrictions; weekend events quickly sell out

"It was a sad day in Arlington Heights when the news finally came down," Arlington Heights Mayor Thomas Hayes said. "Certainly I think it was a foregone conclusion from the business perspective of Churchill Downs that they were going to put the track up for sale at some point."

Horse racing was long the only legal outlet for gamblers, but with the advent of suburban casinos, video slots and online sports betting, the "sport of kings" isn't an automatic economic winner anymore. Arlington has offered national races and seven-figure purses for decades, but now this land is too valuable.

"I think it is clear why they chose not to open a casino at the racetrack property, because it would directly compete with their majority interest in Rivers Casino," Hayes said.

Arlington will host 68 race dates this year. Owner Churchill Downs, Inc., will try to transfer its racing license to another Illinois operator.

In a statement, the Kentucky-based public company said: "(We)...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."

In 1987, the property was gutted by fire. An industrialist poured $400 million in to its return to glory.

"I think it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for something that could be redeveloped," said Mark Meskauskas, president of Brian Properties Inc.

Meskauskas, a commercial real estate manager, thinks a mixed-use industrial development will make sense here.

"I tend to think that developers, those industrial multi-family home developers, might be able to pay more for the land then an operator to keep it as a race track," he said.

That reality is on the mayor's mind. He remembers the fire, the rebirth, and a story likely to be repeated, but with a different outcome.

"I remember going out for a run that afternoon and seeing the smoke come up from the property and so we had many many years of great partnership with the racetrack," Hayes said.

In September, some fans returned to the racecourse, which, like many other businesses, has faced challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The park holds more than 30,000, so its capacity of 300 at the time was not enough to turn a profit.

Because about 85% of the betting at Arlington comes from off-site locations, the park was able to sustain itself without people in the stands.