Push for a racino in Illinois

After years of waiting on Hawthorne to build a racino, Illinois horsepeople are pushing for another plan.

by Neil Milbert

Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association president Jeff Davis and executive director Tony Somone were at the state capital in Springfield last week trying to persuade state legislators to pass a bill during the spring session that was introduced by State Senator Pat Joyce to deny Hawthorne Race Course the power to veto any attempt to build a harness racino within 35 miles of the track.

The boundary was established as part of a sweeping 2019 gambling expansion law that empowered Hawthorne and Arlington International Racecourse in the Chicago metropolitan area and downstate Fairmount Park to build on-site casinos and divert a portion of the revenue for purses. It also allowed for a combination harness track/casino to be constructed in any of seven Cook County townships in southwest suburban Chicago.

“Our industry was so optimistic that the number of foals bred in Illinois skyrocketed the following year by 50 per cent,” Davis said to leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives on Thursday (April 11).

“But today, nearly five years later, while every other type of casino authorized in the 2019 bill has begun operations in some form, the horse racing industry is still waiting.”

The IHHA president pointed out that Arlington “is gone, and Hawthorne is now responsible for supporting two breeds of racing, [and] many of our horsemen have left for greener pastures to states that already have racinos and where there are better racing opportunities.”

Davis also said, “The great news is that Illinois can still join that group of successful horse racing states. But we need the promise of the 2019 bill to be realized with a new harness race track.

“Hawthorne has been promising regulators, legislators and our members for several years now that they are on the verge of a big announcement. In 2022 and 2023 at the race dates hearing, they told the racing board they would begin construction [at Hawthorne] by the end of the year.

“It is now April 2024. There is no evidence of any progress on Hawthorne’s part. Hawthorne has been unable to secure funding for its existing facility yet we are being asked to believe they will be able to secure funding for an additional location.”

A front-page banner story by Robert McCoppin in the Friday (April 12) Chicago Tribune dramatized the plight of the harness racing industry. “…The industry slowly withers” a sub-head concluded.

In 2020 interior demolition work began in preparation for construction of the casino, but that project stalled because of a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, inflation and high interest rates.

Meanwhile, in spite of the disarray in the interior, racing has continued. This year the Hawthorne harness meeting that began last Sept. 9 ended on Feb. 12. The thoroughbred meeting got underway on March 23 and will continue through Oct. 13 after which the standardbreds are scheduled to return for an Oct. 19-Dec. 30 meeting. The bottom line for 2024 is a combined total of 49 programs for the harness horses and 62 for the thoroughbreds.

“Horse racing isn’t the only loser in this scenario,” Davis told the legislative leaders in addressing the status quo. “According to a recent study, The Rebuild Illinois Capital Program has been negatively impacted to the tune of $78 million. While legislators believed they were fixing the Illinois horse racing industry — in fact — the industry is worse off today than in 2019.

“So, on behalf of all the members of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association we are calling for immediate repeal of the exclusive veto power that was given to Hawthorne in the 2019 legislation.”

Somone had this to say about the bill, “It’s a single sentence that would enable somebody else to come in and build. We hope Hawthorne can do it but we’re at a point where we don’t know what else we can do. If Hawthorne can’t do it, we want to give somebody else the opportunity. Five years ago, I didn’t think we’d have to fight to get on a level with Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania [where tracks have casino gambling pumping money into purses].”

Asked for an update on the situation by the Tribune’s McCoppin, Hawthorne issued the following statement:

“We remain fully committed to develop a new harness track to complement racing at Hawthorne as was intended by the legislation. We are the only Illinois business with the proven experience and wherewithal to do so. Our $400 million redevelopment of Hawthorne is the most significant investment ever made in the Illinois racing industry and is the beginning of an exciting new future for the tens of thousands of jobs we support across the state.”

In 2019 Carey partnered with video gaming magnate Rick Heidner for a proposed new harness track/casino outside the 35-mile boundary and they were awarded a Dec. 6-29, 2020 meeting by the racing board.

However, a Tribune story alleged that a bank that had funded Heidner had organized crime connections and Gov. J.B. Prtizker reacted by refusing to sell the state land that was to be used for the track and the racing board revoked the dates. Heidner was subsequently exonerated by the gaming board but by then it was too late to restart the project.

At last fall’s racing board hearings for 2024 dates, Carey said, “We have completed preliminary market diligence for a stand-alone harness track and racino and will continue to move that forward once financing for the casino development at Hawthorne is completed. We have to do our own racino first.”

Earlier last year Greenway Entertainment Group proposed an end to Hawthorne’s veto power, telling the Illinois Senate Executive Committee that this would enable its investors to build a $300 million harness racino on an 80-acre site inside the 35-mile boundary in Richton Park but nothing has materialized.

According to members of the Hawthorne management team, they were never approached about any fully-funded racino ventures inside the boundary.

Carey has rejected suggestions that he open a temporary casino at his track, emulating casinos in Chicago, Waukegan and Rockford that were legalized by the 2019 gambling expansion bill.

When asked to weigh in on the 35-mile controversy Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association president Chris Block told the Tribune: “We’d love to see the harness guys have their own track and we could run at our track. But this doesn’t help us get a racino built at Hawthorne.”

The unseen culprit in the ongoing controversy is Churchill Downs, Inc., the corporation that owned Arlington.

When the late Dick Duchossois — who rebuilt tradition-rich Arlington into what Architectural Digest described as “the world’s most beautiful racetrack” after its grandstand and clubhouse were destroyed by fire in 1985 — merged the track with CDI in 2000 he did so because he believed joining with the most iconic track in North America would ensure the continuation of world class racing at Arlington.

For nearly two decades Arlington and its CDI overlord lobbied for legislative approval to make the track into a racino.

But then shortly before the passage of the gambling expansion act that could have made it a reality, CDI purchased a 61 per cent interest in Rivers Casino. It is the state’s most profitable casino and is located about a 20-minute drive from Arlington.

When the expansion act was passed CDI did a sudden and stunning about face and announced it was selling the track property for development. The Chicago Bears bought the 326-acre site for $197.2 million in February 2023 with the stipulation that there would be no racing or casino gambling at the track, thereby wiping out two nearby competitors for betting at Rivers Casino.

Faced with a higher-than-expected property tax bill, the NFL team tore down the opulent track to reduce the assessed value of the property. The original plan to make a state-of-the-art football stadium the centerpiece of a development with housing and retail businesses is in limbo and the Bears now are focusing on trying to put their proposed stadium on Chicago lakefront property near their current home Soldier Field.

“Let’s not forget the true devils, Arlington and CDI, who have left Illinois racing in this predicament,” said ITHA executive secretary Dave McCaffrey, a standardbred owner and former IHHA president. “And let’s also take a look at [the thoroughbred track] Fairmount Park. They said they were going to spend $60-70 million to make it a casino but they haven’t done a thing down there.

“It has been frustrating to live through the delays at Hawthorne and Hawthorne has a little criticism coming but compared to Churchill and Fairmount, the people at Hawthorne are the flat-out saints of Illinois racing. Without Hawthorne there would be no thoroughbred or harness racing [in the Chicago metropolitan area].”