Arlington Park raises the bar

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.

AP Stretch
The view from our box seats.

Polytrack 3
A handy diagram of Arlington’s Polytrack surface in the main lobby.

AP Grandstand 2
The Arlington Park grandstand.

AP Grandstand
The back end of the grandstand, as seen from the paddock.

AP 6-27 Race 5
The start of a race.

AP 6-27 Race 5a
And there they go.

Rumor Has It
Rumor Has It is led through the walking ring.

Unbridled Eltempo - Jozbin Santana
Unbridled Eltempo heads out to the track with Jozbin Santana on the saddle.

Blue Smoke Bess - James Graham 2
James Graham and Blue Smoke Bess in the post parade.

Tax And Spend - Julio Felix 1
Julio Felix drives home aboard Tax And Spend.

Tax And Spend - Julio Felix 3
Julio Felix tosses his whip after winning a race aboard Tax And Spend.

AP 6-26 Race 8a@
The field passes in front of the grandstands for the first time in a turf race.

Maddie's Odyssey - E.T. Barid 2
E.T. Barid and Maddie’s Odyssey return from a race.

Bank Account 1
Bank Account is led through the tunnel back to the barns.

Florent Geroux 1

After each race, the winning jockey (here, Florent Geroux) signed a couple pairs of goggles and handed them to kids near the winner’s circle. This is among the coolest (and from a public relations standpoint, smartest) things I have seen on a racetrack. Bravo to whoever started this tradition.

Collidin - Inez Karlsson 1
Collidin heads through the post parade under jockey Inez Karlsson. Karlsson, a former boxer in her native Sweeden, was featured in the reality series “Undercover Boss” when the show visited Arlington.

AP 6-27 Race 4@

Collidin and Inez Karlsson cross the wire to win a race.


Filed under Pictures, Racetrack Visits, Story Time

16 responses to “Arlington Park raises the bar

  1. I remember when Julio Felix was riding at RD a few years ago. He has come a long way.

    It looks like Arlington is indeed as great as I’ve heard!

  2. Glad you made it to the best facility in American racing, just sorry I did not see you there. Come back for the Million!

  3. Old Time Race Fan

    It is a beautiful venue, isn’t it? Both the track side and the paddock side are just gorgeous. The food is very good and there is not a bad seat in the house. I have not been there for a few years, but your posting has made me put it on my list for 2010. Very nice photos, as usual, Joe.

  4. otis3082

    I love going to Arlington. A roundtrip train ride from Ann Arbor is around $99. Stay downtown then take the train which will drop you off right in front of the track.

    It’s just a shame that the Illinois Racing Board is screwing the residents of that State in regards to their recent ADW decision.

    Oh, there are a few “bad” seats at Arlington. Last time I was there we sat near the back row of the box seats. Most of the last turn and start of the stretch run was obscured by a wall.

  5. mibredclaimer

    Definitely a great venue for racing. If you haven’t made the trek out there yet, I wholeheartedly recommend it.

    Sorry I missed you, too. I asked Claire about your whereabouts, and she said you had prior engagements that weekend. Don’t worry though, I’ll be back.

    Old Time Race Fan,
    Thanks much! After visiting Arlington, it’s on my list for an annual pilgrimage.

    You know, taking the train isn’t a half bad idea. I may have to try that someday.

    Yeah, they’re in some trouble themselves. I think I recall one of the Churchill Execs saying they were considering some kind of drastic action with the track and that absolutely floors me. There was a nice crowd who all paid at least eight bucks a pop, and looking at the tote board, they were raking in handle hand over fist. Maybe my view of success is skewed a bit by the numbers Pinnacle and MPM pull, but it seemed like they were doing good business.

  6. Old Time Race Fan

    Okay, so maybe there are a few bad seats at Arlington. To be honest I have never been there for Million Day or any real big days. I have always gone during the week. So perhaps there are a few bad ones up in the nose bleed sections. However even way down at the end, in section I, of the grandstand, I found watching the races, I had quite good sight lines. I assume that they still have the big jumbotron which also makes watching easier.
    And unfortunately for Michigan, Arlington can draw a lot of betting money from simulcast, whereas Pinnacle just does not seem to attract much betting interest, other than from those on track. Handle on Michigan racing is poor, to put it mildly.

  7. Bob C

    Great pictures! You are definitely an oldtimer if you remember when Thoroughbred racing was conducted at Hazel Park. Tyner and Hartmann did a bang-up job of destroying racing in the Detroit area. Arlington Park on the other hand is one of the best managed and one of the most beautiful tracks in America.

  8. Tom Miscannon

    Splendid job, Joe. You really captured the ambiance of Arlington Park in you words and pictures.

  9. ragman

    Bob C
    This isn’t to defend Tyner and Hartmann but I’m curious to what you think they did they deserve the credit for destroying racing in the Detroit area?

    I’ve always thought the politicians were the major culprits with the horsemen running second. When simulcasting was born it took a few years before it was ever approved for Michigan tracks. Windsor Raceway became the home away from home. No thoroughbred races after 6:45. One exotic wager a day. Against the law to carry a wager to the track for someone. The list goes on and on. Tyner and Hartmann may have played hardball when it came to rebuilding the barn area but Campbell led the exodus to Great Lakes(4 furlongs was the distance of choice).Now we’ve got a thoroughbred track located on a Metro flight path, surrounded by sod farms miles from most horseplayers, shut out on the internet to state residences and midget betting pools, etc, etc.
    Any hope?

  10. otis3082

    Yeah Joe, if you end up staying downtown then I’ve found taking the train is a lot cheaper and faster then driving. By the time you pay for two days of parking at a downtown hotel you’ve nearly covered the cost of a train ticket!

    Pardon me for hijacking the thread here, and I know this is going to ruffle some feathers but I just have to get this off of my chest ….

    I find that a lot of people connected to the game here in Michigan like to spread blame and accusations around in regards to the state of the industry in Michigan. Every argument I hear from either the horsemen or track people is that they need slots. Excuse me, but what do slots have to do with racing? What are the tracks or horsemen doing to improve the core business; racing? I’m a player first and foremost and I fail to see how slots are a long term solution to improving the game.

    Lets be realistic, with the referendum that was passed, slots at the tracks are a pretty much a near impossibility. Instead of focusing on that, why not look at alternate ways of expanding and improving on the core business; racing. How come there is no push for in State ADWs? Why are we shutting out people who live in Traverse City from playing Pinnacle? Why aren’t we looking at expanding the availability of wagering like allowing people to play the races at bars and restaurants similar to the Keno system? Where is the new fan education?

    I applaud Pinnacle’s recent decision to lower takeout on some exotic wagers. That, is a step in the right direction, as far as I’m concerned. Still, there are a lot of other areas that the horsemen and tracks should be focusing on other then slots.

    Lets not forget, it’s the guys like me who put money down on the races who are the lifeblood of this industry. There should be a bigger focus on bringing new players into the sport other then worrying about getting slot machines which are a near impossibility.

    I’ll get off my soapbox now and await the flames….

    • I miss DRC

      Otis3082, good comments on focusing on alternate ways of improving the racing business. This focus is seriously lacking, especially among the tracks and horsemen. Pinnacle is not taking the Delmar signal. Unfortunately this will drive away the core simulcast players. Why spend the day at Pinnacle when they can bet Delmar elsewhere…not a good sign.

  11. Jeff Klenner

    I’ve enjoyed going to the races everywhere from the most tiny, obscure fair meet all the way up to Royal Ascot and have yet to find anything that can top Arlington Race Course. I went there several years ago on Father’s Day and was completely and utterly impressed with the facility — including everything from the architecture to its consistent cleanliness.

    They have a huge grassy area for family picnics — running virtually the entire length of the stretch — where they had the petting zoo, pony rides, a carousel, and a live band. The number of children there with their parents got me the most excited I’ve been about the horse racing industry in many years.

    The management crew at Arlington Race Course obviously “gets it.” That alone is an achievement unrivaled by many race tracks today. Kudos to the Arlington folks indeed.

  12. mibredclaimer

    Old Time Race Fan,
    Speaking of simulcast, it’s worth noting that I saw no TVs at Arlington offering the Pinnacle signal. I understand Pinnacle’s not the most lucrative signal, but considering the good number of Chicago horses that ship to Detroit, one would figure there would be some interest there. Then again, that’s why I’m not in charge.

    Bob C,
    Thanks! I’ve got a long way to go before I can be considered an old timer. I just have a healthy collection of old win pictures.

    Tom Miscannon,
    Thanks a bunch! I just realized I forgot to include the word “palace” in my description of the track, as we both concluded. I think I made up for it with other descriptive words, though.

    Well, the 6:45 rule was put in place in part so the tellers could get from one H&T track (DRC) to the other (Hazel Park), so that one could partially be put on them. But I do agree with you, they were only part of the problem.

    Very valid points. I think the big draw of slots is that it brings in a lot of money very quickly, like getting the lump sum in a lottery payout. When the lights are in danger of being shut off, the short-term answer looks better than the equivalent of the spread out yearly payouts (ADW), because there might not be a long-term to worry about. Then again, it’s hard to argue with the results like Indiana Downs leeching away the Kentucky population.

    However, I do agree with you that efforts need to be made to pursue alternative revenue sources and educate new fans to make sure the handle keeps coming in. I find the notion of playing in bars and restaurants very intriguing. Do any states do that now?

    I Miss DRC,
    I don’t think they took the Keeneland signal this year, either. Then again, I thought I read somewhere that a lot of tracks weren’t taking Keeneland for some reason. Are either of the nearby harness tracks offering Del Mar?

    Jeff Klenner,
    Like I mentioned in my reply to Tom Miscannon, the word we both used to describe Arlington was “palace”. I know they probably have a deeper war chest in which to draw than most tracks, but even on a smaller scale, many of the ideas and philosophies employed there could be used to create a more enjoyable, fan-friendly experience. It’s amazing more tracks haven’t picked up on that.

  13. ragman

    Hazel Park, Northville and Sports Creek all carry Delmar and Mountaineer and carried Keeneland in the spring.
    Hazel Park has 4 times the simulcast handle as Pinnacle, Northville Downs has 3 times as much and Sports Creek has 20% more. Give the bettors what they want and……
    What is funnier than a Pinnacle insider rushing off to Northville to bet a Campbell horse at Mountaineer.

    The horsemen(MiHBPA) mostly old men who inhabit the terrace have the mis-guided opinion that ADW wagering would cut into the simulcast money while not even considering the boost to pools that would be gained.

    Only hope I see is for the runners to get back to Hazel Park.

  14. Amazing venue no doubt at all. Our family enjoy the food and always find a great sport to enjoy the races.

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