You can take the horse racing out of Arlington Park, but you can’t take the Arlington Million out of horse racing.
At least, that’s the position of Churchill Downs Inc., which announced Tuesday that Illinois’ premier stakes race will live on this summer at its namesake track in Louisville instead of at the historic northwest suburban oval the company is selling to the Chicago Bears.
The Arlington Million will take place in Kentucky on Aug. 13, about 335 miles south of where it’s been held for most of the past four decades — until Churchill Downs cashed out of the Illinois horse racing industry with the sale of Arlington International Racecourse last fall.
Eight other races normally held at Arlington are also being moved south of the state border by Churchill Downs.
But it’s the Million that will feel most out of place. It’s been the highlight of Arlington’s summer thoroughbred racing calendar since it was first run in 1981, when it was heralded as the world’s first race with a million-dollar purse.
Nearly 40 years and three ownership changes later — pending the closure of the sale to the Bears, which is expected to happen early next year — and the Arlington Heights track is being marketed as a trade show venue while the high-stakes race goes on in Louisville.
Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes said he has “mixed emotions” about the use of part of his village’s name in a race taking place in another state.
“Certainly, if they’re doing it to honor the Duchossois family, I have no problem with it,” Hayes said, referencing the death earlier this year of former Arlington Park owner Richard Duchossois. “But it’s a little interesting that they would do that after selling the property.”
Churchill Downs representatives couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
Instead of the sport of kings, Arlington’s website is now touting its “many attractive qualities to help you create a first-class event,” catering to expositions, business seminars — or even just its “enormous parking lot,” which is available for rent.
The track is also soliciting an auctioneer to help sell off its remaining “personal property,” according to a request for proposals listed on the site.
Chris Block, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, which represents horse owners and trainers, said the Million’s move “is another reminder that Churchill Downs shuttered Arlington Park and abandoned Illinois horse racing, compromising hundreds of jobs throughout our state.
“It underscores the necessity of developing another track in Illinois to fulfill the legislature’s vision of expanded horse racing, enhanced gaming opportunities and the growth of all the jobs that our sport and industry supports,” Block said.
Arlington president Tony Petrillo has said Churchill Downs is looking for another site to open a racetrack in Illinois, but the company hasn’t revealed specific plans. He couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.
Either way, it’s not the first time the Arlington Million has been run in another state. It was held in Toronto in 1988 while the Arlington racetrack was rebuilt from the ground up following its notorious 1985 fire.
The Million was scrapped altogether in 1998 and 1999 when former owner Duchossois closed the track during a dispute with state legislators over gambling taxes.
This time around, Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen too has cited high taxes as the reason they’ve pulled out of Illinois horse racing. Meanwhile, the corporation is still cashing in with its other suburban property: Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.
The Bears have said they’re still evaluating the potential of the track, for which they’ve agreed to pay $197 million, as the site of a new stadium. The team has also emphasized they won’t bring back horse racing if the sale does close.
Hayes said Arlington Heights officials are “moving full speed ahead” to assist the Bears “in any way they can” to close the sale.