What's next for Illinois horsemen? Short of Bears partnership, they're likely to go elsewhere
In 1927, Arlington Park hosted its first horse race -- a sport that, at the time, was one of the most popular in the country.
At the same time, the Chicago Bears were playing football in a Chicago baseball stadium -- Wrigley Field -- in their newly established professional league.
Times have changed over the past near-century, but those connected with the legacied sport of kings reacted to this week's big news of the Bears' purchase of Arlington Park by pleading to politicians and anyone else who will listen: Don't forget about us.
"I would hope the state would get involved and the municipality. I know the shiny object is what they're interested in, and it's taken all of the oxygen out of the room," said Mike Campbell, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "But the Bears aren't the only sport in Illinois, and this one's been there for 94 years."
Campbell, whose group represents some 2,500 horse owners and trainers who've raced at Arlington, made a public pitch for a possible partnership between the Bears and a consortium that wants to keep horse racing at Arlington.
That group, led by former Arlington Park President Roy Arnold, plans to reach out to Bears President and CEO Ted Phillips in hopes of preserving the grandstand and oval for racing, while the Bears construct a stadium and entertainment district on the remaining 200 acres of the spacious Arlington Heights property.
"I see endless possibilities," Campbell said, although he also admits that "maybe it's wishful thinking."
In the short term, the end of Arlington's summer racing season last Saturday, and the transition to the traditional fall meet at Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero, is typical for horsemen. They're allowed to use Arlington to train until management locks the gates by midday Tuesday.
But their long-term future -- and that of their sport and the $600 million Illinois agricultural industry that supports it -- is less certain.
They won't be coming back to Arlington next year; even though track owner Churchill Downs Inc.'s purchase and sale agreement with the Bears isn't scheduled to close until late 2022 or early 2023, the Louisville, Kentucky-based corporation didn't apply for racing dates. That leaves thoroughbred owners and trainers with a truncated schedule at Hawthorne next year, having to share time at the lone remaining Chicago-area track with their counterparts in harness racing.
Even in the remote possibility that racing could occur at the Arlington oval while the lengthy multiyear construction of a new Bears stadium took place, the earliest it could happen would be 2023 or 2024, according to Arnold, of Endeavor Properties, who could try to pursue a leasing arrangement with the Bears.
But by then, Arnold admits, a number of Illinois-based owners and trainers might have moved their horses out of state, or might have gotten out of the business completely.
"(Some owners) have discretionary capital. They need a monetary and emotional return. They want to see their horse run. But only two days a week at Hawthorne? With all due respect to Hawthorne, Hawthorne is not Arlington," Arnold said. "I think you'll have people that would have invested in horses and breeding in the state, and they will go elsewhere if they have a true passion for the sport, or they'll start collecting cars instead of buying horses, because they have choices."
The Bears haven't revealed their redevelopment plans for the 326-acre property, and Churchill hasn't said what will be done in the meantime during the closing process that's expected to take at least a year.
Despite the faint hopes of horsemen, Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes said he hasn't heard anything about continued horse racing at Arlington in the short term, or anytime in the future.
"I think it's reflective that nobody applied for dates next year at the facility. That says something to me," Hayes said. "It's unfortunate that the horse racing industry is in the state that it's in. To me, it's unfortunate for all those people who are passionate about it and employed in the industry. But the long-term future of the industry in my mind is very much in question."
Campbell is fearful of the day the stately six-story grandstand could be demolished.
"I've raised my whole family in that area. I'm a dedicated, third-generation horseman," Campbell said. "I think it will be a huge mistake for that municipality to not try to put some joint venture together between the Bears, horsemen and Endeavor. When the city loses that grandstand and the aesthetics and recognition that it has worldwide, I think they will be making a critical mistake."