Illinois Racino Progress Varies At Hawthorne And Fairmount Tracks

Hawthorne running at quicker pace in transition toward new phase of operations
Illnois racino progress
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Officials from both Hawthorne Race Course and FanDuel Sportsbook & Horse Racing discussed progress in relation to their respective racino plans Thursday, but the two tracks on opposite sides of Illinois are moving at clearly different speeds.

The progress reports came as the Illinois Racing Board listened to the two tracks’ proposed racing schedules for the 2023 calendar year as part of their organizational license renewals. The two tracks were permitted to build racinos after Gov. JB Pritzker signed a massive gaming expansion bill in 2019 that also legalized sports wagering.

Moving forward to build those two racinos, though, has come at a slower place than nearly all of the six locations that were granted casino licenses in the expansion bill. Ground has broken on five temporary or permanent casinos, while Bally’s recently submitted its application for the state’s downtown casino license following a nearly year-long process that started with five bids.

Hawthorne and the formerly named Fairmount Park are the only two thoroughbred horse racing tracks in Illinois following Churchill Downs’ decision in September 2021 to sell the land where Arlington Racecourse is located to the Chicago Bears for $196.2 million. Both Hawthorne and Fairmount Park currently offer retail sports wagering, with Hawthorne a partner of PointsBet since September 2020.

Hawthorne waiting on IGB approvals to move forward

Hawthorne Race Course President and CEO Tim Carey struck an optimistic tone with IRB officials that substantial construction work on the planned racino in the south Chicago suburbs of Stickney could begin before the end of the calendar year. He explained Hawthorne is waiting on approvals of financial-related disclosures submitted to the Illinois Gaming Board and said he understood the lack of visible progress can create an appearance where “hope gives way to frustration.”

Carey said Hawthorne has a peace labor agreement in place with 29 unions and a finalized budget that would eliminate potential work stoppages on the site. He added construction would take place within a 14-month timetable, which puts a 2024 racino opening in play if IGB approval is granted before the end of the calendar year. Carey said the project has 28% minority-owned businesses when including women and veteran-owned businesses — above the 25% required by the gaming act.

“Now, more than ever, I’m betting on the future of Illinois horse racing,” said Carey, who likened the process to making Hawthorne a 130-year-old start-up business. “I’m betting on us. Our employees are betting on us. The horsemen are betting on us. Union laborers are betting on us, and our financial partners are betting on us.

“Hawthorne Casino is coming, and it’s going to transform Illinois horse racing for generations. This is my promise to our employees, our partners, and the entire industry.”

Fairmount offers little in definitive racino progress

Responses by FanDuel Sportsbook & Horse Racing track General Manager Melissa Helton were not as detailed to the queries made by racing board officials for the track near the Missouri border in Collinsville. The IGB deemed Fairmount Park “preliminary suitable” to build a racino in October 2020, but progress has come incrementally at best. The original hope when the rebranded sportsbook opened in March 2021 was to open the racino in the fourth quarter of this year.

A key hang-up in the progress has been finding a casino partner. DraftKings at Casino Queen, which operates in nearby East St. Louis, had originally reached an agreement to be the casino operator for the planned racino in March 2021, but Helton explained that when the terms of that agreement expired, Fairmount Park owner Bill Stiritz opted to reach out to find a partner on his own.

Helton added she personally reached out to the architect who built the sportsbook area, and that he has been to the property recently. She said “two weeks ago we met with the city and the engineers, so [the architect has] taken on this project and is currently doing those plans right now.” She added that city officials visited the property Wednesday to examine the sewer system since that would have to be redone due to age and wear and tear.

Though Helton offered “as soon as possible” for when the IRB could expect potential racino progress, the answer did not sit well with IRB Chairman Daniel Beiser. The chairman was one of many on the board who asked for a more specific timeline after he pointed out “the racino is what’s good for the long-term health of horse racing in Illinois.”

Beiser did recognize Helton is hamstrung to a degree, since Stiritz has not provided a direction or timeline for the project. Commissioner Beth Doria asked for an official response by ownership through either a personal appearance or written statement by the next IRB meeting, which is scheduled for Oct. 13.

Saturdays will be busy racing days for both tracks

The board unanimously approved the 2023 schedules for both tracks by a 6-0 vote. Hawthorne will have 68 thoroughbred racing dates that start March 3 on Saturdays and Sundays. The track will add Wednesdays to the racing schedule from June 4 to Sept. 3 and will also run races on Labor Day, Sept. 4. The Suburban Downs standardbred race schedule run by Hawthorne will take place from Sept. 9 to Dec. 31 on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, with Christmas Eve being a dark day.

FanDuel Sportsbook & Horse Racing will have 62 thoroughbred dates with a minimum of seven races each race date from April 18 to Nov. 18. Racing will be held during the day Tuesdays and Saturday nights, with the former Fairmount Park dropping Friday night racing to help the track be more economically viable. The move to Saturday nights also allows another high-profile running of the St. Louis Derby, which FanDuel restored following its rebranding of the track as part of opening its sportsbook. The race run this year had a handle of more than $1 million.

Photo: Shutterstock

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