‘Future Of Arlington Park Can Be Very Bright’: Former Track President Heading Investment Group Hoping To Keep Racing Alive

Roy Arnold, who served as president and CEO of Arlington Park from 2006-10, announced his intention on behalf of a group of investors to purchase the Arlington Heights, Ill., racetrack in a letter to the village’s board of trustees prior to their regularly scheduled meeting on Monday night at which Arlington’s future was on the agenda.

Arnold, who currently heads the Endeavor Hotel Group, is aligned with Mike Campbell, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association in an effort to continue live racing at the suburban Chicago racetrack after owner Churchill Downs Inc. said in 2019 it would not seek a casino license and now has the property listed for sale. 

Arlington Park opened for live racing on April 30 and is scheduled to run through Sept. 25 in what many assume will be its final meeting.

During their Monday meeting, the Arlington Heights board of trustees voted unanimously in support of two resolutions: one that would restrict the types of businesses  permitted if the racetrack property is developed and the other preventing Churchill Downs Inc. from putting restrictive covenants on a sale agreement (i.e., restricting a buyer from continuing to operate Arlington Park as a racetrack or to add casino gambling).

Following is the text of the letter from Roy Arnold, president and CEO, Endeavor Hotel Group:

Good evening, Mayor Hayes and members of the Arlington Heights Board of Trustees. Thank you for the opportunity to address you concerning the future of Arlington Park, a gem among racetracks in North America and a community asset with tremendous untapped potential.

A decade ago, I had the privilege to serve as Arlington Park’s president and chief executive officer. I witnessed the venue’s attraction to local families and friends as scores of fans from Arlington Heights, Chicago and surrounding communities – and, in fact, from across the Midwest – traveled to Arlington Park to enjoy leisurely and lively recreation at a beautiful track. I also experienced and came to fully appreciate the challenge of effectively managing a large and complex gaming operation.

Today I speak to you on behalf of investors planning to soon purchase that property, continue its tradition of thoroughbred horse racing, expand its gaming opportunities, and develop portions of the site to better support and serve the needs of the local economy. Simply put, we seek to maximize the potential of Arlington Park’s full 326 acres.

We embark on this pursuit with the knowledge that it will be up to Illinois lawmakers to decide whether to revisit the state’s gaming law to extend the window for Arlington Park’s future owner to apply for a license to add and operate a casino. As we all know, that license was explicitly authorized by the state’s 2019 gaming expansion legislation. But Churchill Downs, which had spent two decades lobbying state government for that license, opted, to everyone’s disbelief, not to apply for the license and the application window expired.

We are accounting for the possibility of operating Arlington Park without the addition of a casino, but we nonetheless want to ensure there is no artificial restraint on owners, the village or the state in such time that common sense prevails and the legislature acts to allow us to implement the intent of the 2019 gaming law. We respectfully encourage you, as the elected representatives of the Village of Arlington Heights, to retain unfettered control as a home rule community and not permit Churchill Downs to encumber the property in any way. We urge you to adopt the proposed ordinance to prohibit restrictive covenants concerning gaming uses at Arlington Park.

Churchill abandoned its commitment to Arlington Park and the community of Arlington Heights. It should not be allowed to limit in any way the future activities or economic opportunity at that site. Indeed, as was clearly expressed by the terms of the 2019 gaming expansion law, Illinois lawmakers intended for the owner of Arlington Park to expand gaming opportunities at the track; stimulate gaming competition in Illinois; improve the quality of purses that form the wages for thoroughbred trainers, jockeys, blacksmiths, veterinarians and numerous backstretch workers; boost tourism; and grow and diversify the tax revenue base for the local and state governments.

Our team is prepared to do just that. In our judgment, there is no higher or better use of Arlington Park than as a thoroughbred racetrack. Arlington Park is an internationally acclaimed icon of thoroughbred racing; its value to the people of Illinois and, most especially to the people of Chicagoland, can’t be overstated. Arlington Park cannot be replaced. The site’s potential has long been recognized by the racing industry, by Churchill Downs and by the political leadership of Illinois. And there is no secret as to how to tap that potential: to prosper, Arlington Park must become a diversified entertainment destination.

New ownership can bring new vision and the accountability that the Village of Arlington Heights and the State of Illinois deserve. Our team believes that the owners of a gaming facility such as Arlington Park should be held accountable for their commitments. Horse racing and other forms of gaming are regulated forms of entertainment; a license to operate racing or casino gaming is a privilege, not an entitlement. Such a license is granted by the state and that grant entails respect for the goals established by the legislature. The owner and operator of a treasure such as Arlington Park must act to serve not only investors but also the taxpayers of Illinois.

We believe Arlington Park has the potential to lead the North American thoroughbred horse racing industry with a modernized facility. Should we have the chance to own and operate that magnificent property, we will:

  • Keep the core of Arlington Park the same. We would preserve a world class sporting venue on approximately 126 acres including stables, fan parking, the grandstand, and, of course, the track itself. This would include what is recognized as one of the world’s best turf courses.
  • Relocate the stable area in order to open space for a compatible industrial and mixed-use development. This is consistent with the wishes of the community and would broaden the local tax base. The industrial park of roughly 100 acres would be framed by adjacent industrial properties and the Metra line to the north.
  • Develop a year-round entertainment district of about 40 acres that would supplement the summer racing choices for visitors. Select portions of this section would include hotel, retail and condo options.
  • Urge the General Assembly to allow Arlington Park to add casino gaming, realize the venue’s full potential, fulfill the intent of the 2019 gaming expansion law, bolster tax revenue and economic opportunity for Arlington Heights, and help generate revenue (as intended by the 2019 gaming expansion law) to support the state’s Rebuild Illinois capital construction program.

We have no doubt that Arlington Park, as a track and gaming entertainment destination, can be profitably operated. A smaller footprint for the track would reduce operating costs. Diversifying the entertainment district means more fans and, importantly, new fans. Embracing technology and an affiliated sports wagering platform would bring new revenue to support the track from wider access to the Arlington Park product.

We recognize that comments from Churchill Downs executives and recent media reports suggest that demolition of Arlington Park is inevitable – that we have just now begun the last season of racing at the track. But we firmly reject such fatalism; we know that with the support and partnership of the Village of Arlington Heights, the State of Illinois and the thoroughbred racing community, the future of Arlington Park can be very bright indeed.

Arlington Park can again be a top tier racetrack attracting the world’s greatest racing talent and creating new lifetime memories for millions of fans. We come before you with a clear vision for obtaining that objective – and for delivering the benefits of success to the Village of Arlington Heights, surrounding communities, and the State of Illinois. – Roy Arnold

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