‘Trying to catch up’: After losing Arlington, big bets are placed on the future of Illinois horse racing

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. — Arlington International Racecourse has been the crown jewel of racing in Illinois for decades. However, owner Churchill Downs Inc. has not applied for future race dates and announced last month that it has reached an agreement 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 as this track and others face increased competition from casinos and other forms of gambling, WGN Investigates found that despite the long odds, big bets are being placed on the future of horse racing.

“So we’re behind, so we’re trying to catch up,” said Tony Somone, executive director of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association.

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

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

But over the years, Illinois lawmakers have prevented that from happening here.

Under legislation passed in 2019, Hawthorne can now build a casino and a sportsbook is already open on his property. The plan is for the track to use the money from these facilities to offer larger wallets, which will attract more breeders and punters.

It is not yet clear whether this will happen, but the owners are hopeful.

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

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

The track near the southern suburb of Crete has been mostly empty since it closed in late 2015. But now there are plans to add a casino as well as bring back the races, but new owners will have to overcome a few bureaucratic hurdles before obtaining the necessary licenses.

Marko Dobrasinovic’s family bought Balmoral in late 2015.

“We want a place where people can come and run away and just have a good time.”

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