Horse track/casino proposed for south suburban Richton Park as lawmakers seek to eliminate Hawthorne veto power – Chicago Tribune

A group of investors wants to build a casino and horse race track in south suburban Richton Park, officials said Wednesday, and Illinois lawmakers have proposed eliminating a major roadblock to the idea.

The recently-formed Greenway Entertainment Group stated that it is actively pursuing a “racino” in Richton Park, with the blessing of village officials. Greenway’s plans became public when discussed at an Illinois Senate executive committee hearing Thursday.

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.

Greenway’s managing member and Lake Bluff real estate developer Drew Daniels wrote a letter to the Illinois Gaming Board stating that the group had a small number of wealthy interested investors, and has under contract an 80-acre site adjacent to Interstate 57 in Richton Park that meets the general physical requirements for a racino. The group has proceeded with initial design and engineering for a $300 million-plus development.

The group has had several meetings with elected officials of Richton Park, who expressed support, Daniels wrote, adding that the revenue lost due to “incessant delays” in Hawthorne’s plans for expansion create a “significant crisis” for the racing industry.

“We urge the Illinois Gaming Board and the Illinois General Assembly to consider the loss of revenue and endless delays that the current Act permits,” the letter says, “and promote an alternative that allows this critical and meaningful revenue to commence without further inexplicable (sic) impendence.”

Roy Arnold, former president of Arlington International Racecourse and now CEO of Endeavor Hotel Group, is one of the prospective investors. He led a group that tried to buy Arlington to keep racing there before the Chicago Bears bought the site this year.

He still hopes to do a deal with the Bears to keep thoroughbred racing at Arlington, but says getting rid of the Hawthorne veto is crucial to building a south suburban harness race track.

“The group has a viable plan,” Arnold said of Greenway’s racino proposal. But, he said, lawmakers would have to end Hawthorne’s veto power before anybody develops the site.

Not everyone welcomes a racino in the south suburbs. Mayors in the south suburbs previously raised concerns that it would jeopardize plans for a stand-alone casino in the area.

Just a few miles from Richton Park, Wind Creek Chicago Southland plans to open a new casino in early 2024 on Halsted Street just off Interstate 80.

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.

Bettors sit in the PointsBet section of Hawthorne Race Course in Stickney on Dec. 16, 2022.

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, he said, with plans to open next year.

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.

State Sen. Bill Cunningham, a Democrat from Chicago’s South Side, 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, said Steve Brubaker, a lobbyist for the Illinois Harness Horsemen Association.

“We have the same goals,” he said. “I think it’s a question of timing.”

Hawthorne Racetrack in Stickney is seen on April 1, 2022, in Stickney.

Harness racers want a new track so they can race there instead of splitting time on the track with thoroughbred racing at Hawthorne.

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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.

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.

While no racinos have opened in Illinois, two tracks in Indiana quickly added gambling shortly after it was legalized there. In Illinos, competitors continue proceed with plans for new casinos in Chicago, Waukegan, Rockford, Aurora, Joliet and downstate.

This is a developing story. Check back later for updates.

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