A week after live racing returned without spectators to Arlington International Racecourse, the CEO of the track's parent company cast an even darker shadow Thursday over the already precarious future of the storied Arlington Heights oval.
"The long-term solution is not Arlington Park. That land will have a higher and better purpose for something else at some point," Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen said during a quarterly earnings call with investors.
"But we want to work constructively with all of the constituencies in the market to see if there's an opportunity to move the license or otherwise change the circumstances so that racing can continue in Illinois," Carstanjen continued. "For us, we've been patient and thoughtful and constructive with the parties up in that jurisdiction, but long-term that land gets sold and that license will need to move if it's going to continue."
Carstanjen made the comments in response to a question from an industry analyst about the racetrack's future.
It's been growing ever more doubtful since Churchill's decision nearly a year ago to forgo slots and table games at Arlington -- once seen as a lifeline for the state's struggling horse racing industry.
Company officials pointed to the tax structure of the state gambling law and an increasingly competitive market that they say would make it hard to gain an acceptable financial return.
Carstanjen again Thursday floated the possibility of Arlington moving its racing license elsewhere in the state, having previously suggested that it may be more economically viable elsewhere.
"Long-term for Arlington Park, as we've explained on these calls and we've explained to the state, it doesn't work," Carstanjen said. "The economics don't work. It's not a viable solution. We'd like to give the state, given everything that's going on, an opportunity to help us find a better long-term solution."
Carstanjen's comments drew rebuke Thursday from Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes, who wants the park to remain a horse racing track.
"It's very disappointing to hear," Hayes said. "Certainly I've never felt Churchill Downs was all that concerned about Arlington Heights and our community at all. I think they're concerned about the bottom line.
"I certainly understand that from a business perspective, but I have a different perspective about what's in the best interest of Arlington Heights and our community."
Officials with the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, the group of horse owners and trainers who were locked in a protracted contract dispute with the corporation until last month, reiterated previous criticism of Churchill's decision not to pursue casino games that could have boosted purses at Arlington.
"For Churchill's CEO to say preposterously that Churchill has been 'patient' with other stakeholders speaks to the height of Churchill's contempt for the elected officials and working families of Illinois," according to a statement released by the horsemen Thursday. "The very least that Churchill could do is be honest about its true intention: the company cares only about maximizing profit and is happy to sacrifice the spirit of Illinois law and the livelihood of working Illinoisans to serve its greed."
Despite applying for a sports betting license March 9 through the Illinois Gaming Board, Arlington no longer plans on pursuing it, said Carstanjen, pointing to the early success of the Rivers Casino sportsbook in Des Plaines. Churchill owns a 61% stake in the casino about 10 miles from Arlington.
"We're happy to play heavily in Illinois in sports wagering through our Rivers license," he said. "That'll be our play for sports wagering in Illinois."
A shortened 30-day live race meet at Arlington started without spectators on July 23, although it marked a reversal by Churchill officials, who initially said a resumption without fans wouldn't be possible due to a high cost structure. An Arlington official said last week the track could lose $7 million to $8 million this year with the loss of general admission, group sales, and food and beverage revenues.
The races restarted after management inked a new two-year contract with horsemen after contentious negotiations.
Last year, Carstanjen committed to keeping Arlington's gates open only through 2021. But on Thursday, he said the track has an agreement with horsemen to run a 2021 meet "if we elect to do so."
An annual hearing for 2021 racing dates is scheduled before the Illinois Racing Board in September.