If nothing else, Churchill Downs Inc. surely has captured the attention of local officials and lawmakers with its announcement that it will not seek the casino license it previously seemed to covet so fervently for Arlington International Racecourse.
Where the debate goes from here – and the odds of the track’s closing – are harder to assess.
Arlington Park is one of the premier horse racing venues in the world, and this isn’t the first time it has threatened to go dark without some acquiescence by the state, so the notion that this announcement is more political leverage than a solid business vow can’t be dismissed.
But whatever the case, the company’s reservations are understandable, given that the requirements the license would place on the track are more severe than those placed on the Illinois casinos that compete against it. In essence, that would make the track’s slots less lucrative than those in a casino. Hard to see the equity or fairness in that.
Will Churchill Downs be successful in getting its complaint heard? Given the track’s competitive location only a few miles from the Churchill Downs’ owned Rivers Casino, does the company even care?
When it comes to Springfield listening, it won’t hurt that the track is not alone in its strident objections to the rules in the recent gambling legislation. Officials in the city of Chicago are all but demanding that the tax formula be changed to make a city casino more tenable.
The state of Illinois is counting on the revenue its large-scale shift in gambling philosophy is expected to produce. It would have a stake in the result if companies failed to build the gambling stations that have been expected to fuel some of the state’s future bill paying and spending.
So, as the November veto session for considering legislative revisions approaches, it seems reasonable for legislators and policymakers to take a serious look inside the gambling expansion bill to see what revisions are necessary.
In doing so, there are many questions to be answered.
If one objective of the legislation was, as Churchill Downs and lawmakers themselves said, to protect horse racing, is it reasonable to allow conditions under which the company could shutter a horse racing venue while the same company pursues expanded gambling stations in Des Plaines and Waukegan?
Is the requirement that tracks divert a portion of their casino proceeds into racing purses the anti-competitive additional tax that Churchill Downs says it is, and if so, what’s to be done about it? Or, is it a means of promoting the industry, as the company and racing supporters insisted when they lobbied for video gambling at the track?
Arlington Park, even in a troubled economic environment, is one of the jewels of the suburbs and a source of pride for the entire state. It is an asset worth protecting. It deserves the respect of careful and thoughtful analysis to ensure it can compete effectively and fairly. At this eleventh hour, we hope that is all that Churchill Downs really wants.
(Arlington Heights) Daily Herald