A group of investors wants to build a casino and horse track in south suburban Richton Park, officials said Wednesday, and Illinois lawmakers have proposed eliminating a major roadblock to the idea.
A letter from Greenway Entertainment Group stated that the group is actively pursuing a racino in Richton Park, with the blessing of village officials, state Sen. Bill Cunningham said at a Senate executive committee hearing.
Cunningham offered few details of the proposal. Steve Brubaker, a lobbyist for the Illinois Harness Horsemen Association, said a consortium of entities is forming with help from Roy Arnold, a former president of Arlington International Racecourse who led a group that tried to buy Arlington and save horse racing there before the Chicago Bears bought the site for a potential football stadium.
To clear the way for such a deal, a bill in the Senate would eliminate Hawthorne Race Course’s power to veto any competing racino within 35 miles of its track in west suburban Stickney.
The veto was negotiated as part of a massive gambling expansion law in 2019 that allowed six new casinos statewide, including one in Chicago, plus sports gambling and “racinos” — horse racing tracks combined with casinos.
Racinos were supposed to save the dying racing industry by providing revenue for prize money. But Churchill Downs Inc., which owned Arlington, instead bought a majority of Rivers Casino in nearby Des Plaines, and shut down Arlington.
Hawthorne officials planned to build a south suburban racino in Tinley Park with Rick Heidner, a video gambling operator and developer. But after a Tribune story in 2019 linked some of Heidner’s business projects to a banking family with alleged prior mob ties, state officials said they would no longer sell the land for the project.
In a settlement, the Illinois Gaming Board later dropped its effort to revoke Heidner’s gaming license on other grounds, and he claimed vindication.
Hawthorne also announced plans for a $400 million racino at its existing track, first to open in 2021, then in 2022, but that hasn’t happened. Hawthorne President Tim Carey told the Gaming Board last week that the project was delayed repeatedly by COVID-related complications and high interest rates.
The project remains ready to go while he tries to complete a financing deal, with plans to open next year, he said, but he suggested a competing racino might complicate that.
Hawthorne “easily” could have put 1,200 slot machines in the grandstand, Carey said, but instead was trying to create a first-class casino that would benefit horse racing in the long run. The track is losing millions of dollars a year while keeping racing viable, he said.
If lawmakers take away Hawthorne’s “protection” from a competing racino, he said, “that hurts.” Maybe they should then reduce the revenue that goes to the horse owners, he suggested.
Cunningham said the new investor group has to get its plan together more before it becomes “viable.”
“Horse racing is dying while we wait for a racino to be built at Hawthorne,” Cunningham told Carey, “so I think we have to be open to other options.”
Neighboring states like Indiana, Iowa, and Kentucky all have thriving horse racing industries because they have racinos to fund the purses, the horsemen’s Brubaker said.
“We have the same goals,” he said. “I think it’s a question of timing.”
Harness racers want a new track so they can race there instead of splitting time on the track with thoroughbred racing at Hawthorne.
Former Gov. Jim Edgar did not attend the hearing, but told the Tribune in an interview that the situation requires action to solve the impasse. Like many other horse owners and racers, he said, he goes to Indiana for the bigger purses.
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Edgar gave the Carey family credit for helping to keep horse racing going in Illinois after Arlington, Maywood Park and Balmoral Park race tracks closed.
But he said Gov. J.B. Pritzker, lawmakers, and the Illinois Racing Board need to get a south suburban racino going.
“The casino bill could have revived Illinois racing, but nothing happened,” Edgar said. “We’re letting a great opportunity slip through our fingers.”
The proposed bill would set a deadline of June 29, 2023 — four years after creation of the law that authorized racinos ― before the veto would expire.
Not everyone welcomes a racino in the south suburbs. African-American mayors in the south suburbs repeatedly have raised concerns that it would jeopardize plans for a stand-alone casino in the area.
Plans call for that casino in Homewood/East Hazel Crest, to open in 2024, while competitors proceed with plans for new casinos in Chicago, Waukegan, Rockford, Aurora, Joliet and downstate.
This is a developing story. Check back later for updates.
Thursday, June 1, 2023 at 4:27 pm | Back to: Top News Updated: June 1, 2023 at 4:59 pm Governor Roy Cooper | Getty Images By Bill Finley Tar Heel Downs anyone
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