What’s next for the Illinois Knights? Without the Bears partnership, they’d probably go somewhere else
In 1927, Arlington Park hosted the first horse race – a sport that at the time was one of the most popular in the country.
At the same time, the Chicago Bears were playing football at the Chicago baseball stadium – Wrigley Field – in the newly created professional league.
Times have changed over the past century, but those associated with the heirloom sport of royalty reacted to this week’s big news of the Bears purchase of Arlington Park by appealing to politicians and anyone else who would listen: Don’t forget us.
said Mike Campbell, president of the Thoroughbred Horse Association of Illinois. “But bears are not the only sport in Illinois, and this sport has been around for 94 years.”
Campbell, whose group represents about 2,500 horse owners and trainers who have raced in Arlington, made a public presentation of a potential partnership between the Bears and a consortium that wants to continue horse racing in Arlington.
The group, led by former Arlington Park president Roy Arnold, plans to reach out to Bears President and CEO Ted Phillips in hopes of preserving the runway and oval for the race, while the Bears build a playground and recreation area on the remaining 200 acres of their extensive Arlington Heights property.
“I see endless possibilities,” Campbell said, although he also admits that “this is probably wishful thinking.”
In the short term, the end of the summer racing season in Arlington this past Saturday, and the transition to the traditional fall meet at Hawthorne Racecourse in Cicero, is a regular occurrence for the riders. They are allowed to use Arlington for training until the department closes the gates by midday Tuesday.
But their long-term future — and that of their sport and the $600 million Illinois agricultural industry it supports — is uncertain.
They will not return to Arlington next year; Although the buy-and-sell agreement that track owner Churchill Downs has with Bears isn’t due to close until late 2022 or early 2023, the Louisville, Kentucky-based company hasn’t applied for race dates. That leaves Thoroughbred owners and coaches with a stumbled schedule at next year’s Hawthorne, who have to share time at the only remaining Chicago-area track with their belt-race counterparts.
Even in the remote possibility that the race could take place at the Arlington Oval during the long construction of the new Bears Stadium, the earliest that could happen would be 2023 or 2024, according to Arnold, of Endeavor Properties, who may try to follow through on arranging a lease with the Bears.
But by then, Arnold admits, a number of Illinois-based owners and trainers may have moved their horses out of state, or may have gone out of business altogether.
“(Some owners) have discretionary capital,” Arnold said. “They need a monetary and emotional return. They want to see their horses run. But only two days a week at Hawthorne? With all due respect to Hawthorne, Hawthorne is not Arlington.” “I think you’ll have people who would have invested in horses and horse breeding in the state, and would go elsewhere if they had a real passion for the sport, or would start collecting cars instead of buying horses, because they had choices.”
The Bears did not disclose their plans to redevelop the 326-acre property, and Churchill did not say what would be done in the meantime during the shutdown process, which is expected to take at least a year.
Despite the riders’ faint hopes, Arlington Hayes Mayor Tom Hayes said he hasn’t heard anything about horse racing continuing in Arlington in the short term, or anytime in the future.
“I think it reflects that no one has come forward for appointments next year at the facility,” Hayes said. “That says something to me.” “It is unfortunate that the horse racing industry is in the state that it is. To me, it is unfortunate for all the people who are passionate about it and working in this industry. But the long-term future of this industry in my mind is a lot in question.”
Campbell fears the day the grandiose six-story amphitheater could be demolished.
“I raised my entire family in that area,” Campbell said. “I’m a dedicated third generation rider.” “I think it would be a huge mistake for that municipality to try not to put together a joint venture between Bears, Knights and Endeavor. When the city loses that runway and its aesthetics and worldwide recognition, I think it will be making a huge mistake.”