‘Trying to play catch up’: After loss of Arlington, big bets being placed on future of Illinois horse racing

WGN Investigates

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. — For decades, Arlington International Racecourse was the crown jewel of racing in Illinois. But its owner Churchill Downs Inc. did not apply for future racing dates and announced last month it had reached a deal to sell the 326-acre property to the Chicago Bears.

If approved, it will leave the Chicago area with one remaining track: Hawthorne Racecourse in Stickney. And while that track and others face increasing competition from casinos and other forms of gambling, WGN Investigates found big bets are being laid on horse racing’s future, even in the face of long odds.

“So, we’ve been left behind, that’s why we’re trying to play catch up,” executive director of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association Tony Somone said.

For Hawthorne, that means a $400 million redevelopment that, when completed, will include an onsite casino.

The addition of a casino has helped tracks in other states survive – and even thrive.

But for years, Illinois lawmakers blocked it from happening here.

Under legislation, passed in 2019, Hawthorne can now build a casino and a sportsbook on its property is already open. The plan is for the track to use cash from those amenities to offer bigger purses, which in turn will attract more breeders and bettors.

It remains to be seen if that will happen, but its owners remain hopeful.

“It’s a sign of the times,” Hawthorne’s Jim Miller said. “You have to come back and level the playing field. And that’s what we’re looking to do.”

Meanwhile, the new owners of Balmoral Park said they want to bring back racing.

The track near south suburban Crete has sat mostly empty since closing in late 2015. But there are now plans to bring back racing, as well as add a casino, though the new owners would need to clear several bureaucratic hurdles before it can obtain the necessary licenses.

Marko Dobrasinovic’s family acquired Balmoral in late 2015.

“We want a place where people can come and escape and just have a great time,” he said.

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