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Illinois Sports Betting Approved By Arlington After Horse Racing’s Demise

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A move that killed off one of the world’s biggest racetracks in part to avoid gaming competition with Illinois’ biggest and most successful casino may have backfired. Churchill Downs, Inc.

When CDI sold so much loved and much missed Arlington Park thoroughbred racetrack to the Chicago Bears, it was widely believed that the sale was to avoid competition between Rivers Casino Des Plaines CDI and BetRivers parent company Rush Street Gaming. In 2019, Illinois racetracks won the right to add racinos. Horse racing’s share of revenue would go to purses and track improvements.

The other two remaining racetracks in the state – Hawthorne Race Course and FanDuel Sportsbook & Horse Racing – jumped at the chance (though Hawthorne has yet to begin building an arcade). Yet, inexplicably, CDI refused to add a racino to Arlington.

In the summer of 2020, Bill Carstanjen, CEO of CDI said:

“The long term solution is not Arlington Park. The earth will have higher and better goals for something at some point.

Now comes word from Fox32 Chicago (WFLD-TV) that Arlington Heights village administrators have approved a zoning change allowing for a sports betting center.

Illinois rules allow sports betting at major sports venues. In October, the FanDuel lounge opened at the United Center (however, games of chance still need to be approved by the Illinois gambling council). A DraftKings sportsbook is currently under construction at Wrigley Field.

And that means the game seems to have a big presence in the Bears’ new home in Arlington. Although the IGB has the final say.

The village is located just 20 minutes north of the Rivers Casino. Although only sports betting is on the table now, not a full-fledged casino like the one that might have come to the racetrack.

The Chicago Bears insisted on sports betting in Arlington

In September 2021, the Chicago Bears signed a $197.2 million purchase agreement for the 326-acre parcel of land where the now-closed Arlington Park is located. The plan is to build a new stadium on the site, 30 miles northwest of where the Bears now play at Soldier Field.

And, in October of this year, team owners met with Arlington Heights officials to present the preliminary plans for the new stadium.

The zone change to allow sports betting is a key part of the Bears’ $5 billion development proposal. The plan is to create an NFL stadium and mixed-use retail district on the racetrack site.

Did Churchill blunder in killing Arlington?

Many Illinois horse racing fans are mourning the loss of what was officially called Arlington International Racetrack, a track Architectural Summary included in a 2014 list of the most beautiful racecourses in the world.

The late Dick Duchossois rebuilt the track and ran it with great success. That is, until he unwittingly spelled the track’s demise by teaming up with CDI. Duchossois then sold a majority stake in Arlington to CDI, which closed the track in September 2021. This ended nearly a century of horse racing at the site of the Chicago-area sporting landmark, which was once home to the Arlington Million.

Yet CDI’s decision to avoid competing with its Rivers Casino seems short-sighted. A racino in Arlington would have kept that play money in the hands of CDI. It would also have saved horse racing at one of the sport’s renowned venues. It is assumed that this is something the company that operates Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby has some interest in doing.

Instead, Arlington’s closure threw horse racing in Illinois into chaos.

Today, only one track remains in the Chicago area which featured races at Hawthorne, Maywood Park, Sportsman’s Park and Arlington. And the interests of thoroughbreds and harness racing share Hawthorne.

The timing is not ideal for either breed. And the purse money is exhausted waiting for the racino. This forced many riders to move to other jurisdictions. They can no longer wait for gambling revenue to improve their horse racing options in Illinois.

Rivers dominates Illinois casinos, but not for long

Also, in the years to come, Rivers Casino will certainly lose its title as the largest and most profitable casino in Illinois.

Notably, at Bally’s has the green light to build a mega-casino in downtown chicago. In the short term, a temporary casino at the Medina temple is expected to open in 2023. However, the permanent casino, which will be built on the current site of the Chicago Tribune printing press, will not open until 2026 at the earliest.

Bally’s Chicago will include:

  • 3,400 pitches
  • 173 table games
  • sport bets
  • 10 food and drink venues
  • a hotel tower with up to 500 rooms and a rooftop bar
  • an outdoor musical space that can accommodate 1,000 guests
  • plus a 3,000-seat, 70,000-square-foot indoor entertainment center
  • and an outdoor green space.

In comparison, Rivers Casino has:

  • 1,000 slot machines
  • 65 table games
  • BetRivers Sports Betting
  • Seven bars, buffets and restaurants

Until October 2022, Casino of the rivers has undergone a gross adjustment turnover of more than 436 million dollars. This leads all Illinois casinos by a wide margin. It also amounts to 39% of total revenue over $1.1 billion for 11 Illinois casinos combined. The next closest casino by revenue is Grand Victoria Casino, which earned almost $128 million in 2022, just 29% of what Rivers Casino made.

Also, Rivers Casino also leads the state’s casinos in attendance. Year-to-date, Rivers has welcomed nearly 2.3 million patrons, or 30% of the total public casino attendance of 7.6 million. Hollywood Casino Aurora is the next closest with just over 700,000 spectators.

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