Arlington Heights, Ill. (WNN) — Unlike many older racetracks past their primes, there are no tickets scattered across the grounds of Arlington Park. And the mood around the track is festive.
Guests – never called customers or patrons in their glory days – line up for drinks and pizza and run to the rails when the horses arrive at the starting gate. There are rare reminders that Arlington Park is on the verge of ending a run that has lasted more than a century,
Still, there are some subtleties, such as the announcement over the loudspeaker about the closing week, which means the end of racing for the season, and the collage on the Infield video screen with the message, “Thank you Arlington for a million memories.”
Except for what the equestrians call a miracle, Saturday will be the final day of racing for the venerable track, which staged the first race with a million-dollar purse 40 years ago and internationals being shipped to run in North America. Well brought to the legitimacy. The track outside of Chicago has been a major center of the horse racing industry as a whole since being owned by Churchill Downs Incorporated, with 326 acres of land put up for sale and redevelopment.
“I think it’s a very long shot we’ll be able to save this as a racetrack,” said longtime trainer Chris Block. “Until recently, a lot of horsemen and fans were in denial like this, they didn’t think it was really going to stop. But now the truth is coming out.”
The reality is that the venue officially known as Arlington International Racecourse looks like it is the next in a line of famous tracks to close its doors. Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows in California, Calder Park in Florida and Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts are among them.
It struck former Arlington Park communications director Lynn Snierson while she was watching a Los Angeles Chargers game at Sophie Stadium – where Hollywood Park stood. One possibility for his old workplace is the next home of the NFL’s Chicago Bears, although with a prime location on the Chicago train line, the Arlington Park land has no shortage of possibilities for what could come.
“We are currently working through the sale process following interest in the Arlington Park property from several qualified bidders,” said Churchill Downs Incorporated spokeswoman Tonya Abellan. “We have executed confidentiality agreements with each bidder, and we are unable to comment on the future of Arlington Park at this time in order to uphold our obligations under those agreements and to preserve the integrity of the process.”
While the future is uncertain and racing in the present is not what it used to be, there is no shortage of stories about Arlington’s glorious past.
The track was opened only in 1927 and received a facelift after the Grandstand burned down in the 80s, resulting in a palatial property. Everything from the menu books in the fancy dining room to the track to match the furnishings in the flat, stadium-style viewing area was crafted for the fancier experience.
“It didn’t have the old-fashioned Saratoga charm; Snierson, who worked in it from 1992–95, said, “It didn’t have the Mission-style 1930s Old Hollywood of Santa Anita.” “It certainly wasn’t the setting in the San Gabriel Mountains or Lake George in the Adirondacks at the base of Saratoga. It’s there in Flat Illinois.
“But within it, within its territory, it was a beautiful oasis.”
He was the target of owner Dick Duchosois, better known as “Mr. D”. He and others who bought the track in the early 1980s “expended no,” according to Scott Hazleton, whose father was an instructor at Arlington Park. He and fellow TVG analysts Caton Breeder and Mike Joyce grew up on and around the track and remember how great the racing used to be.
“There are a lot of horses that have passed through: Secretariat, Dr. Fager, great trainer, great jockey,” Hazleton said. “It set a lot of trends for racing for people’s careers. So much greatness came out of that place and came through that place.”
It is perhaps best known for the Arlington Million, which in 1981 was the first race to offer a $1 million purse. Mike Joyce’s late father, Joe, came up with the idea that put Arlington Park on the map.
But to show just how much the location has fallen in recent years, what’s likely the final race of the trademark race was not even worth $1 million and was renamed Mr. D. Stakes. Joyce had mixed feelings about returning to the program this summer, and those doubts were felt as they walked through the door.
“It was really the first year I went where there was a sense of the Grand Budapest Hotel,” he said. “Instead of setting up red carpets and tents with Champagne festivities and all that stuff, they had benches stacked on top of each other like they waited for the U-Haul to come in and take them out.”
A lot of moving trucks would be needed to get the horses, people and equipment out of Arlington Park if the racing there was really done for good. Block lamented the jobs that would be lost, a major cause of the Illinois gambling bill years ago that was not a lifeline for racing.
Some still hold on to hope.
Longtime trainer Wayne Catalano said: “I still can’t believe it’s going to happen.” They have a farm in Elgin about 20 minutes away and have called Arlington Park home for more than 30 years.
“It’s the most amazing place in the country, and it’s like, ‘How do you close the most beautiful track? Catalano, who began training at Arlington Park in 1983. “It’s all that matters to me. That’s where my family is now. I raised my daughter there. We had horses there. We had a lot of horses that we raised in our backyard in Elgin and ran there. Mine. The whole career was there.”
Despite all the achievements and memories, there is a chance that Arlington Park becomes a part of horse racing’s illustrious history, with no connection to the future – whatever that may look like.
“I’ve seen a lot of racetracks up close,” Joyce said. “I worry that if they bulldoze the place and they don’t have a second race in Arlington Heights, it will become a distant memory for people and just fade away.”
More WNN Sports: ./hub/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports