Arlington Heights, IL – When we first started this mission that became the Midwest Paddock Report, our intrepid staff of two decided that we really could only focus on a couple of tracks while making sure that we didn’t neglect the other tracks around the region (hence the “Around the Region” tab…). Headquartered in southeastern Minnesota it appeared obvious that our first year focus be on Canterbury, our “home” track, and Prairie Meadows in Iowa. A visit ‘around the region’ last Sunday made our summer much more crowded. It will be impossible to pass up the racing and hospitality this summer at Arlington Park.
We started our day at Arlington with morning works. You get a real feel for a racetrack in the morning. The vibe is very different when filled with horses, jockeys, trainers, clockers and the occasional owner going about the hard work of prepping for the afternoon showcase than when the public joins the fray and the competition begins.
The first thing that strikes you about Arlington is its location. You look around from the apron and can’t believe where you are – not at a racetrack, but just outside of Chicago. It is like you landed in a bucolic oasis. Not an oasis that dots I-90 not too far away, but an oasis from the urban and suburban surroundings.
The grounds are lush. A pond dominates the infield with several large trees including an impressive willow. There is no skyline in the distance, only trees and a single building nearby just off the far turn, home of Ditka’s restaurant and Arlington’s OTB outlet and built to blend in with the track architecture.
The paddock is a lovely open area and, in a touch that I have to think sits well with horsemen, backs up to the barn area with a short walk from barn to paddock – no walking near the crowds. The horses go from stall to paddock quickly and with minimal potential for agitation. It sits in a rough bowl with the grandstand on one side, the path to the stables opposite and two slopes of grass with Grecian-like stairs on either side. There is plenty of room for the public to view the horses at ground level or from the balcony’s that exist on nearly every level of the grandstand structure. A particularly unique view is from right above the tunnel as the horses move from paddock to racetrack.
The grandstand structure is lovely. Destroyed by a devastating fire in 1985, the new Arlington rose from the ashes and has many touches designed to make the public’s racegoing experience a pleasant one. The fire occurred on July 31 and while the meet shifted to Hawthorne, the track’s signature race, the Arlington Million was run at home with temporary stands and tents only a month later. The remarkable show of resiliency and determination earned the track a special Eclipse Award, the first racetrack to earn an Eclipse.
Owner Richard L. Duchossois wanted to make sure that the outside seating was designed so there would be no posts or pillars in anyone’s way while watching the races. Outside seating includes grandstand and box seating while there are several options indoors as well, from pedestrian to swanky!
The apron includes a terraced slope to the track with benches at every level for patrons. A picnic area near the mid-stretch point is available for folks who want to enjoy a lovely summer day. From a picnic trackside to a more staid and proper meal high above Arlington in the Million Room, there are many dining options available, the most popular of which appeared to be the food court in the center of the grandstand. Every major food option you could think of was represented, including flavored popcorn, ice cream and a Ditka’s hot beef sandwich area.
The racing is conducted on an artificial main track, one of the few left in North America, and on a lovely turf course. Eight races were conducted the day we were there and the field size was decent. The future of Chicagoland racing has been in limbo for several years and with former governor Pat Quinn rejecting assembly approved gaming expansion that would have included slots at both Arlington and Hawthorne, the future looked bleak.
However, slot advocates have not given up and with word that Gov. Bruce Rauner isn’t necessarily opposed to gaming expansion, there is hope that this legislative session will bring some relief for the racing industry in Illinois. Casinos, of course, oppose further gaming expansion but powerful Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel wants a destination casino for his city and a gaming expansion bill for the tracks that includes a downtown casino could be just what the doctor ordered for racing in the Prairie State.