While Bears evaluate Arlington Park, Hawthorne readies for casino construction
Sunday marks the anniversary of the final day of horse racing at Arlington Park, which is now being liquidated as the Chicago Bears continue their due diligence on a pending $197.2 million purchase.
The Arlington Heights oval is expected to remain dormant next year, too, after the Illinois Racing Board's formal award this week of 2023 race dates to Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero -- the lone remaining Chicago-area racetrack.
Thoroughbreds entered the starting gate for their 2022 fall meet at Hawthorne on Friday afternoon.
It's a study in contrasts between the racetracks in the Northwest and Southwest suburbs: Churchill Downs Inc., the Louisville, Kentucky-based owner of the former track, finding its prime real estate too valuable and the 2019 state gambling expansion law too taxing, while the fourth-generation family owners of the latter tout grand plans to start building a casino enabled by the legislation.
"We can't wait. I can't say enough about how excited we are," Tim Carey, Hawthorne's president, told the racing board at the dates hearing Thursday. "We fought for 12 years down in Springfield to get this legislation. We've done everything possible. The minute it was signed, we ran hard. We couldn't be more excited about doing this. We know what this can be. We know what it can be for this industry."
Hawthorne was given "preliminary suitability" status by the Illinois Gaming Board in July 2020, but it's still awaiting final approval from the state regulatory agency, which is separate from the racing board.
Carey said Hawthorne is in the process of submitting the necessary financial disclosures to gaming board regulators. He didn't give an updated cost figure for the project, but at one point, the redevelopment was estimated at $400 million.
Racing Board Chairman Dan Beiser asked Carey if he's comfortable with the financing that would make the so-called racino project a reality.
"Absolutely, yes," Carey said.
The expansion and renovation calls for slot machines and table games, dining areas, a multilevel parking garage and upgraded wagering facilities. A temporary sportsbook, operated in partnership with PointsBet, has already been installed.
The project would involve 29 different labor unions and create 1,200 construction jobs, Carey said.
Seeing the casino construction during next year's thoroughbred racing season -- 68 total days starting March 4 through Labor Day -- will give some optimism to Illinois horse owners and trainers, officials with the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association said.
"Right now, when you look over there every day, there's not a lot of optimism," said David McCaffrey, the association's executive director. "If that project is going and you see progress, I think that that's going to mean a lot and it's going to allow people to invest in their stables. The project will manifest itself very positively in more investment in Illinois racing."
Horsemen have long lobbied for the addition of slots and table games to Illinois racetracks for the ability to boost declining purses on horse races. What already was a beleaguered Illinois horse racing industry was further hurt by Arlington's closure, forcing a truncated racing calendar this year at Hawthorne where thoroughbred and harness owners and trainers had to share time.
Harness had the track in January, February and March; thoroughbreds started in April, May and June; trotters returned in July, August and early September; and thoroughbreds resumed Friday.
Next year, as thoroughbred racing is in a full block from March to September at Hawthorne, harness will begin at the state fairgrounds in Springfield June 12 to Aug. 31, then come to Hawthorne Sept. 9 to Dec. 31.
"We're in difficult times. We all realize that and we're trying to do the best we can," said Chris Block, an Elk Grove Village resident and president of the thoroughbred horsemen's group. "The schedule we came up with was what we thought was the best for our horsemen and for the industry."
If approved, construction on the Hawthorne racino could begin by December and would take 14 months to complete, officials said.