Arlington Park rightfully earns its reputation as one of America's best venues for fans and handicappers. Holy Thursday returns to unsaddle from a race with Inez Karlsson aboard.
With so much negativity surrounding the state of racing in North America, sometimes it’s refreshing to see a track that just gets it right.
After a weekend at Arlington Park, I found the track did so many things right that my bar for what makes a good racetrack has been set at a new level.
The trip to Arlington came to be after I landed some box seats on the cheap in last December’s Michigan Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association year-end silent auction.
After a bit of planning and schedule aligning, I got to cash in those tickets a few weeks ago. It was a day of racing and fancy dress (not going to lie, I suited up) with assistant trainer Emilie, superstar freelancer Claire Novak and some of her friends, followed by a night on the town in Chicago.
Arlington’s grandstand was a massive, silver-colored structure with a lean-to roof that hangs out over the grandstand. For some reason, I found the roof fascinating. I repeatedly pondered how much more fun watching the races would be if the fire sprinklers that were dotted across the roof went off at random intervals, climaxing with all of them going off at once for the duration of the day’s final race. Ideas like this are what will keep racing alive in the 21st century.
I was raised on the philosophy that if one can not say something nice, he or she should not say anything at all. With that in mind, I will refrain from comment about the tape recorded version of the national anthem played before the races.
After a few races, Claire, being at her home track and having connections everywhere, got our group into the paddock area. The structure itself was a tall, solid-looking wood building offering enough cover to walk a horse around in a rainstorm without feeling a drop. The walking ring and surrounding area were verdant and well landscaped, punctuated by the gorgeous Jessica Pacheco wandering about the ring and breaking down the field for the upcoming race. Between Pacheco and the cute bugler who played crowd-pleasing tunes (Little Spanish Flea!) and waved to the camera after each call to post, Arlington was not lacking for talent that was easy on the eyes.
On the way back to our box, we ran into Eclipse Award-winning trainer Wayne Catalano. Catalano was once a regular rider on the Detroit Race Course/Hazel Park circuit, so I was excited to meet him, but for different reasons than most. Unfortunately, our introduction was fleeting, so I did not get the chance to talk to him about his time in Detroit. As if I needed another reason to go back to this track…
My betting ventures on the weekend were largely forgettable. Over two days’ worth of racing, I cashed one ticket for about 20 bucks. My toughest beat came in the nightcap of our day in the box seats. While perusing the program, I noticed a gelding named Doublefour who ventured out to Will Rogers Downs for a start in April…and missed the board. Badly. He recovered with a decent second at Arlington in his next start, but that Will Rogers debacle and the considerable class jump he was attempting stuck in my mind. Despite Claire’s goading to support my small track roots and play the Will Rogers horse, I looked elsewhere. Doublefour ran away with it. Contrary to popular logic, I should never trust my instincts.
While my day in the not-so-cheap seats was unquestionably awesome, I knew I had not consumed the full Arlington experience. I had to return the following day and take everything in from the ground floor.
For attendees whose tickets were not awarded to them in a silent auction, a general admission ticket commanded eight dollars. While this is the most I have ever paid for a admission into a racetrack (remember, I had a media pass for Kentucky Derby weekend), the sticker shock was eased by the fact that a $3 program was included in the cost.
The plant’s ground floor was anchored by its mall-style center food court. There were no brand-name booths, but plenty of variety. After trying the requisite cheeseburger on Saturday (pretty good, but not quite Ellis Park good), I came across an item called Loaded Mac n’ Cheese that combined two of my favorite items – BBQ pulled pork and good old cheesy mac. Right in my wheelhouse. Did it usurp the third spot on my still-developing Holy Trinity of racetrack concession food (alongside the Ellis Park burger and Turfway Park grilled cheese)? Not quite. Was it still among the better meals I have had at a track? Yeah, probably.
Venturing outward from the food court on either side will lead to rows of mutuel tellers and self-service terminals. The track seemed to rely heavily on the self-service machines, which could be found just about anywhere on the grounds, and because they can be rather intimidating to a novice bettor, this meant the lines to place a bet rarely ran more than one or two deep, if that. I didn’t get shut out once, although with my lousy handicapping, I probably would have benefitted from missing the cut a few times.
The apron was multi-tiered with benches on every level. Not only did this ensure there were no bad sight-lines for people in the cheap seats, it also provided plenty of angles for photographers and tourists who think they are photographers like myself.
As one ventures from the grandstands toward the quarter pole, he or she will find a picnic area similar to Ellis Park’s, but on a grander scale. The grassy area hosted rows of shaded picnic tables, pavilions, food stands, and most importantly, gazebos with multiple self-service betting machines. A good racetrack gives its patrons an opportunity to bet around every corner. Arlington Park is a very good racetrack.
Among the various activities in the picnic area was a table sporting the logo of the Major League Soccer franchise Chicago Fire. Seated behind the table were three gentlemen who could easily pass for professional soccer players. Considering the fact that any United States-based player with any kind of name recognition was busy packing after squandering a golden opportunity against Ghana the previous day, the sparse attendance around the table was not unexpected.
At the end of the picnic area set a pair of festival tents teeming with children. One offered pony rides, complete with numbered saddlecloths on the miniature steeds. In the other was a petting zoo. I’ve seen a lot of awesome things at the races, but “petting zoo” is a new one. If taking pictures of strangers’ children didn’t make me feel really creepy, I’d show you myself.
The one thing I kept noticing as I walked around Arlington was how much fun everyone seemed to be having. Tables lined the apron with birthday and graduation parties. Kids rushed over to the tunnel between the paddock and the winner’s circle in hopes of snagging a pair of signed goggles from the winning jockey (which is a great idea for everyone involved from a marketing perspective) or enjoyed something in the picnic area. The racing was of good quality, but the experience of being there, “the show” if you will, is what put the track in a class of its own. Putting horses in a starting gate and letting them go will draw some gamblers, but it’s “the show”, the racetrack experience, that puts butts in the seats and keeps them coming back for generations. From what I have seen, no track has grasped this concept better than Arlington Park.
When I told my friends in the racing business I was going to visit Arlington, those who had been there unanimously gave it glowing reviews. They almost made it sound too good to be true. However, after seeing what the track had to offer from the box seats and the apron benches, Arlington absolutely lived up to the hype. The streak of glowing testimonials lives on.
Photos of my weekend at Arlington Park can be found behind the jump.