Significant hurdles to clear before Balmoral will rise again as a racetrack

by Neil Milbert

Is Balmoral Park destined to be a born again racetrack?
Bankruptcy forced Balmoral out of business following its 2015 harness meeting when the Illinois Racing Board didn’t award it 2016 dates.

HITS, Inc., a New York-based company, purchased the track and has been conducting hunter/jumper competition there since 2017. The deed prohibits pari-mutuel horse racing, casino gaming or any other type of gambling on the property until 2026.

But now HITS is under contract to sell the property to Team Real Estate Development, LLC., a firm headed by Chicago south suburban developer Phil Goldberg, whose plans call for the resumption of racing and the introduction of gaming.

“Balmoral Park is one of the crown jewels of Chicagoland, and our plans include returning it to its former glory and creating a premier sports, event and entertainment destination,” Goldberg told the Chicago Tribune.

He has the support of State Representative Thaddeus Jones and Michael Einhorn, the president of the village of Crete where Balmoral is located.

Although the massive gaming expansion bill passed by the Illinois legislature and signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzger earlier this year calls for a new harness track/casino it stipulates that the racino must be located in any of six south suburban Cook County townships and Balmoral is in Will County.

According to the Tribune, Jones plans to make passage of legislation that would allow Balmoral to operate as a racino one of his highest priorities when the legislature reconvenes in January. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot wants lawmakers to revamp city and state taxes for a Chicago casino authorized by the expansion legislation and the newspaper quoted Jones as saying: “This (Balmoral racino) should be included in the broader package to give Chicago what they want.”

State Senator Michael Hastings is strongly opposed to changing the law. “The racino should stay in the townships the original bill allocated for,” he said.

In September, it seemed as though a new harness track that would be located in the village of Tinley Park was a done deal. Real estate developer and video gambling magnate Rick Heidner was planning to buy the former Tinley Park Mental Health Center and build a state-of-the-art racino and the Illinois Racing Board approved his application for a 2020 harness meeting from Dec. 6-29.

However, in October, when it was revealed that Heidner had business ties to a banking family with alleged organized crime connections, Governor Pritzger called off plans to sell the Mental Health Center to Tinley Park, which was going to sell it to Heidner, and the dates were revoked (full story here).

Heidner had bid $1.8 million for Balmoral in 2016, but instead, the bankruptcy court and the state’s four highest-earning casinos accepted a $1.6 million bid by HITS. The casinos had a $77.8 million judgement against Balmoral and its sister track, Maywood Park, after winning a lawsuit involving a racetrack impact fee connected with the corruption scandal that sent former Governor Rod Blagojevich to prison.

The 2016 closing of Balmoral and Maywood left the Chicago metropolitan area with only one harness venue, Hawthorne Race Course, where the standardbreds share time with the thoroughbreds on a seasonal basis.

The metropolitan area’s other track is Arlington International Racecourse, which conducts thoroughbred racing from May through September while Hawthorne conducts harness racing. In 2020, Hawthorne also will hold harness racing in February, March and April rather than its traditional spring thoroughbred meeting to put construction of its casino on the fast track.

In 2021, Hawthorne president Tim Carey’s plans call for resumption of the spring thoroughbed meeting, which would limit Chicago area harness racing to May through September.

In contrast to Heidner, who was partnering with Carey in the proposed Tinley Park track and was working with the support Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association (IHHA), Goldberg hasn’t reached out to the horsemen.

“The horsemen are open and interested in any opportunity to get back to racing year around,” said IHHA executive director Tony Somone. “With only one racetrack right now — with Hawthorne being the only game in town — that’s not possible.

“The IHHA worked very hard to get language into the bill that allowed a standardbred racetrack to be built. If Balmoral is to race again there are some extreme hurdles to get over. The language would have to be changed. Again, we are willing to work with the (Team Real Estate Development) people to make that happen. But there is also the existing constraint on gambling on that property for the next seven years. How do you get past that? And it’s within 35 miles of Hawthorne (the statutory boundary for another racetrack) so that would have to be changed. These are all things that concern us.

“We’d like to know more about who is promoting this and who are the key players behind bringing Balmoral back to life. We’re certainly interested, but there are some unanswered questions and so many moving parts, and information is not forthcoming. We need more facts before we jump in head first.”

Racing Board Commissioner Tom McCauley said he also is in the dark.

An Internet search revealed that among the other projects that Goldberg’s company is working on is putting a boutique Vib Hotel on property adjacent to Arlington International Racecourse.

“I find it intriguing that someone who apparently has had no involvement with Illinois racing heretofore suddenly has projects announced not only for Balmoral but also for a property adjacent to Arlington International,” McCauley said when asked about the two developments.

“If anybody were going to resuscitate Balmoral it’s a very complicated path with a lot of hurdles. Never mind that it says in the Balmoral deed that gaming shall be prohibited (until 2026). Balmoral is in Will County and the bill passed by the legislature stipulates a bill exclusively for harness racing in Cook County in one of six townships.

“I’m going to assume he knows what he’s doing but it all seems very mysterious.”