Putting Arlington up for sale: the dollar rules as real estate trumps racing history. Again.

Horse Racing Arlington
Arlington: a great racetrack in peril. Photo: arlingtonpark.com

Horse Racing Planet Nicholas Godfrey

The famous home of the pioneering Arlington Million is on the market, a ‘unique redevelopment opportunity’. NICHOLAS GODFREY laments the impending loss of one of the great racetracks

Let’s just name a few. Rockingham Park (2009), the last track in New Hampshire, and Suffolk Downs (2019), the last in the whole of New England, home of the fabled MassCap, the Massachusetts Handicap, won by Seabiscuit, Whirlaway, Cigar and Skip Away. Plus Running Stag for Philip Mitchell and the UK.

Or how about Ohio’s Beulah Park (2014), Idaho’s Les Bois Park (2016), and Portland Meadows (2019) in Oregon, or Bay Meadows (2008), the northern Californian venue colloquially known as ‘Baze Meadows’ owing to the prolific exploits of Russell Baze, the winningmost rider of all time in North America?

You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? OK, let’s add a more recent examples of the genre – Calder (2020) in Miami – or the most famous, Hollywood Park (2013), home to the first Breeders’ Cup.

All of these US racetracks (plus several others) have closed down since the turn of the century, with only Presque Isle added to the roster.

Clearly, this doesn’t paint a rosy picture of the direction of travel when it comes to horse racing in the States – and last week came worrying news that arguably the most popular US venue in a global context could well follow suit in the not-too-distant future in the shape of Arlington Park. Or Arlington International, as it has styled itself for some decades now.

Stripped-back meeting looked like another death knell

Admittedly, the Chicago track hasn’t enjoyed rude financial health for a while, to the extent that last year’s abandonment of the showpiece Arlington Million card can have surprised few. 

Although COVID-19 was the primary reason, the rich ‘International Festival of Racing’ card would have been in danger for other reasons even if the pandemic hadn’t existed.

In the event, only a truncated 30-day meet (cut from about 90), denuded of any fancy-pants stakes racing, was held at a racetrack where on-site crowds contribute a more significant proportion of income than elsewhere.

Racino this ain’t; people go to Arlington for the racing and to patronise an array of welcoming bars and restaurants. Ironically, such an excellent customer experience was a negative once COVID struck, helping to make the track an unviable proposition in economic terms.

Thus the money that would have been spent on the Million card – lest we forget, the world’s first $1 million race when it started in 1981 – was reallocated to more mundane daily purses. Not so much Arlington International as ‘Arlington Parochial’.

In retrospect, this looks like another death knell, a hastening of the inevitable. Though racing is set to resume this summer, according to a press release from owners Churchill Downs Incorporated, the 326-acre property in suburban Arlington Heights is to be sold – and the company selling the land will aim to find a redeveloper. The Chicago Bears have been mentioned as one possible.

Don’t be fooled by the name …

Incidentally, don’t be fooled by the name: given that they owned the recently closed Calder, Churchill Downs Incorporated (CDI) have history in this field.

If anyone doubts that Arlington is in serious peril, then just consider what chief executive Bill Carstanjen had to say. It was all about sale and redevelopment.

“Arlington’s ideal location in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, together with direct access to downtown Chicago via an on-site Metra rail station, presents a unique redevelopment opportunity,” suggested the CDI man.

“We expect to see robust interest in the site and look forward to working with potential buyers, in collaboration with the Village of Arlington Heights, to transition this storied location to its next phase.”

Horse Racing Arlington
Racing at Arlington: “one of the most beautiful tracks in the world”. Photo: arlingtonpark.com

Four-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown, also a four-time Arlington Million winner, was among those to express his disappointment at the news.

“So incredibly sad,” he tweeted. “Not only is Arlington one of the most beautiful tracks in the world, it also has an amazing team of employees who are passionate about racing. I’ve experienced many special moments here … another avoidable ending to a treasured track.”

To be fair to Carstanjen, he added that CDI was “committed to pursuing the relocation of Arlington’s racing licence to another community in the Chicagoland area or elsewhere in the state”.

Then again, he has also said in the past that the land on which Arlington stands could have a “higher and better purpose”; it is doubtful he was referring to its current use as a COVID-testing centre.

“What higher and better use could there be for that property than in part to save it for racing?” fumed Mike Campbell, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, quoted by Horse Racing Nation

Local horsemen have pledged to try to form a consortium to buy Arlington themselves – a tall order against what CDI says has been 30 years of  “nothing but a steep and precipitous decline for on-track betting”.

America’s most outward-looking racecourse

All of which seems unlikely to save Arlington, which may well be one of the most pleasant racecourses on the planet but is also worth more as houses and offices. Or a new field for an NFL franchise.

Located about 25 miles northwest of Downtown, Arlington is now one of just two extant Illinois racetracks alongside blue-collar Hawthorne. Sportsman’s Park, an unlovely functional venue, was shuttered after 70 years in 2002.

Chalk and cheese have more in common than Hawthorne and Arlington, where a deserved reputation as the most outward-looking of America’s racecourses was built largely on the dream, drive and ambition of one man, Richard Duchoissois – Mr.D to all and sundry – who turns 100 in October 2021.

Though the Arlington Million has long since ceased to be the race it was when it led the world as a pioneering event with the richest prize in the sport, a sense of civic pride still surrounds the racetrack and its flagship race.

It also remains popular with Europe’s top trainers: Aidan O’Brien, John Gosden and Sir Michael Stoute have all had Grade 1 winners there, and the Breeders’ Cup came to town in 2002, when Rock Of Gibraltar didn’t win but High Chaparral did.

The Million itself boasts a storied history, right from the word go when Willie Shoemaker and the ever-popular John Henry held off outsider The Bart in an unforgettable finish, immortalised in a bronze sculpture at the top of the paddock.

John Henry came back to win a second one, while Luca Cumani and Bill Watts recorded pioneering transatlantic victories with Tolomeo and Teleprompter in 1983 and 1985 respectively.

Teleprompter’s victory went down in history because the race took place only 25 days after a fire had gutted the Arlington stand. ‘Uncle Dick’ pledged to run the race anyway, and 35,000 people attended, most of them sat in temporary bleachers. Even those who disdain Arlington for its affectation must have been impressed.

Arlington, though, is not all about the modern era and the Million. In 1947, subsequent Triple Crown winner Citation broke the five-furlong track record on his fourth start as a two-year-old; he went back to Arlington to win the Stars & Stripes Handicap the following year. 

In his next race after his historic Belmont, Secretariat won the Arlington Invitational by nine lengths.  In 1996, Cigar equalled Citation’s 16-race winning streak in a specially carded race, the Citation Challenge. Guess the venue.

The American Derby, now a relatively minor turf contest, used to be one of the continent’s foremost races, with its 1893 running the second most valuable race run in America during the 19th century (albeit at Washington Park, yet another defunct Chicago venue).

‘A step too far’

Horses of the year Buckpasser and Damascus were among the winners after it moved to Arlington; so were Preakness hero Tom Wolfe and Kentucky Derby victor Forward Pass. Dermot Weld won with Pine Dance in 2000.

Whichever way you cut it, that’s a whole lotta history set to go down the Suwannee.

“I’m asking fans across America, weigh in on this,” said Illinois racing spokesman Mike Campbell, speaking to Matt Stahl at Horse Racing Nation. “Corporate America just can’t get away with everything. This is a step too far, in my opinion.”

Maybe so. But that is what happens when land is worth rather more for real estate than it is for a racecourse.

Visit the Arlington website

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