Only two horse racing tracks remain in Illinois, one in western Chicago in Stickney and the other in the Metro East in Collinsville. Three horse racing tracks have closed within the last eight years in Illinois, including Arlington Park, Balmoral Park, and Maywood Park, all in the Chicagoland area.
The horse racing industry decline can be attributed to fewer equines being bred on downstate farms, and many breeders and trainers have left to race in other states. A long-anticipated ‘racino’ project at Hawthorne Racecourse in Chicago remains stalled amid financing woes. Horse racing tracks have been facing increasing competition from casinos and the explosion of sportsbooks and other forms of gambling in Illinois in recent years.
The decline in the horse racing industry, in turn, has also had a huge impact on horse farms and various agricultural industries in Illinois. Harness racing purses totaled nearly $42 million in 1993, but that figure dropped to $24 million 20 years later. There are incentives offered to Illinois-bred horse farmers when they race in Illinois, but horsemen have been moving out of state for decades now to other states where the industry is in much better shape. The number of foals, mares and stallions registered in Illinois has dropped significantly since 1993, and many breeders that remain in Illinois have scaled back operations in major ways.
“I spent my childhood training and riding retired racehorses, so it is painful to see racing’s collapse and the impact that has on the thoroughbred community along with other breeds,” stated Rep. Travis Weaver (R-Edwards). “Breeders and training racehorses isn’t a cheap hobby, so it is no surprise that as Illinois chases successful businesses and wealthy individuals away to greener pastures, we see a decline in the sport, which is a real tragedy as all people with all backgrounds enjoy watching beautiful running horses.”
Standardbred horse breeding numbers are at an all-time low in Illinois, with only around 140 foals in 2018. At the height of horse racing in Illinois, more than 2,000 standardbred horses were foaled.
“There are hundreds of small horse farms in Illinois that have been severely impacted by the industry changes,” stated Rep. Norine Hammond (R-Macomb). “It’s been very sad to see the decline, but we still hold out hope better days are ahead for the industry.”
Arlington Park’s closure in 2021 was a massive blow to the horse racing industry, as it had hosted horse racing for nearly 100 years. The track’s closure was due to declining attendance and falling revenue, with losses totaling $10 million in the final four years. The 326-acre property included a six-story, 700,000 square foot grandstand and an overall capacity of 35,000. Arlington Park was once home to the Arlington Million, the world’s first million-dollar thoroughbred race. The Chicago Bears bought the property in 2021, with intentions to build a new indoor football stadium and entertainment complex. Those plans have not yet been finalized, but demolition at the property began on May 30.
Thoroughbred racing has been a mainstay for nearly 100 years in downstate Collinsville at what was formerly known as Fairmount Park. The facility is now known as FanDuel Sportsbook and Horse Racing. The facility averages over 400 employees during peak racing season and has enough space to hold 1,000 horses. Both Fairmount and Hawthorne were granted options to expand into racinos as part of a massive gambling expansion bill signed into law by Gov. Pritzker in June 2019. The Collinsville facility has plans to move forward with the beginning phases of construction and a goal of opening a casino in the fourth quarter of 2024.
At Hawthorne, physical progress has been made in terms of demolition work, and once financing is attained, officials plan to move forward with a ’14-month, shovel-ready project’ to implement a casino. The 40,000 square foot casino project would include a 300-room hotel, movie theater, bowling lounge, water park resort and outdoor amphitheater.
The future of horse racing in Illinois is uncertain. From 2009 to 2019, the annual betting handle dropped by over 32 percent. Illinois has lost horsemen to other states with larger prize pools. As the best horses left, horse racing became less interesting for betters, so they wagered less and less. The move to racinos represents the best chance to save the horse racing industry, and in turn also help the horse farm industry, in the current economic climate.