This past Saturday, I set out on my maiden voyage to Arlington Park in Arlington Heights, Illinois; one would suppose, with all the races I attend, I would have visited one of the closest tracks in proximity to me at least a handful of times. I can't really say why it's taken me so long to visit the home of the Arlington Million, except for bad timing, looking to travel only to big stakes races, and my apprehension in having to take toll roads. What can I say, I don't like tricky driving. But after taking in the grounds and the experience there for the first time, I have to say I can't wait to return and get to know the park like an old broken-in couch.
Though I haven't been to half of America's racetracks, I've been to half of the top-rated facilities: Churchill Downs, Belmont Park, Oaklawn Park, Keeneland, Hollywood Park, Fair Grounds, and Turfway Park; this gives me a decent gauge on how to rate the new racetracks I visit. Calling itself the most beautiful track in America, Arlington was setting itself up for some scrutinizing. I admit I was pretty blown away by all I saw.
The first thing I noticed was the friendly staff waiting to greet you at the main gates; from the minute you arrive at Arlington, it's clear the proprietors want you to have a pleasant experience; it felt as if you were walking into an elegant, old-time park to see something really classy: what all good racetracks should strive for. When you enter a great race track, you feel like you're stepping into a different era, that you might be bumping into the upper crust letting down their hair and enjoying a beautiful day eyeing immaculate examples of horseflesh; elegance and racing go hand in hand-there's a reason there are races named after Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Arlington exuded this feeling immediately, from the entrance to the gorgeous paddock sitting directly behind the gates.
Though admission was a little pricier than most tracks ($7 for adults at the Box Office, $5 for Twin Spires Club members), I didn't mind footing the extra dough for a track that is unspoiled by slot machines and provides such a classy experience. The paddock was engorged with flowers and well-manicured trees, encircling an oval in front of the pristine saddling paddock. Rich green ivy climbed up the white stone walls of the rear of the grandstands, where a curving stair led you to the first level. I walked in, completely sold, before I'd even seen the track. There didn't appear to be a speck of dirt anywhere. And, unlike most tracks I've been to, there were people everywhere.
I attended Arlington Park on Blackhawks Legends Day, a special event coordinated to showcase ex-players from the NHL for autograph signings, which I cared and knew absolutely nothing about. But as far as I could see, only a fraction of the attendees at the track were actually there for the hockey stars. This was a non-stakes day, and the place was half-full of fans. I couldn't believe my eyes!
There were families and groups of friends everywhere; there were probably more people in attendance on this fickle day of racing than when I saw Horse of the Year Curlin run at Churchill Downs on Grade I Stephen Foster Super Saturday. Apparently, an outing to Arlington with your family or friends on a beautiful Saturday is the Thing To Do around Chicagoland. Why can't every track be like this? The atmosphere was fun, friendly, and simply unbelievable comparatively. Whatever secret the good folks at Arlington have figured out, the rest of America's tracks better figure out A.S.A.P. It's clear that the park pushes "family fun," and that looks to be a big factor with the crowds that came out on this late day in the season.
I also have to say a word about the facilities, because I like to see what is and isn't working at all the racecourses: the food was plentiful, and no matter what you were in the mood for, Arlington probably served it. Though I only went to the Cobeys Food Court on the first level, I was amazed by the choices of food and drink: you could order anything from a classic track frank and fries to pizza, a turkey sandwich, grilled chicken, or a salad. And it was good food, not reheated, soggy bread you knew had to have been sitting out since last Saturday. If you were to venture in the upper levels of the grandstands, maneuvering through the reserved and box seats, you were sure to find more elegant dining. If you arrived early, you could claim a table sitting at the top of the stairs, where you could relax and watch the races beneath shade. On either side of the grandstands, umbrella-shaded tables offered party-like terrace seating at an additional cost. Oh yeah, and the gift shop is also one of the best I've seen, offering everything from T-shirts and stylish hats to windbreakers, Arlington Million glasses, watercolor prints, and jewelry. You will not leave Arlington without taking home some sort of souvenir with the Arlington logo; even the reusable hurricane glasses were stamped with a race horse jetting out of a big A.
When I was able to pull myself away from the indoor marvels (yes, the bathrooms are also some of the cleanest I've encountered trackside), I was presented with what I consider to be one of the biggest factors in which I judge a racecourse: the outdoor apron seating, the infield, and the track itself. This is where a track lives and dies, and Arlington is set up with the fans in mind. While the infield is landscaped with majestic weeping willow trees and a large pond, both the turf and main track is easily viewable from the numerous outdoor bench seats, which cascade down stairs so no one will be obstructing your view, even if they're wearing a very large fancy hat. What's more, the finish line is placed directly in front of the grandstands, and the winner's circle is wedged in an embrace of paddock tunnel and grandstand seating. I don't think I've seen anything quite so fan-friendly. Not only can you stand directly across from the horses as they pass the wire, you can hang over the wall from the winner's circle and be handed a pair of signed jockey goggles, which is what all the kids were doing after each race. What a place.
There's only a couple complaints I have about Arlington, but they're not something the casual race-goer will probably notice; one, Arlington doesn't offer many stakes races. The Arlington Million is the track's pinnacle race, and I always seem to miss it for whatever reason. The race holds a few other stakes races on its main card the day of, which knocks out other days that could hold big stakes. Basically, I'd like to visit the track when it's full of top-notch horses not just running on the turf, which leads me to the next point: the main track is synthetic. Synthetic surfaces are proving to be a deterrent for some major athlete horses, like the great filly Rachel Alexandra; also, they're proving not to be the "safer" surface people thought they'd turn out to be. I won't get into the debate, it's just a personal preference, and the surface issue is becoming a hotly debated one in the racing world right now. With the other major Thoroughbred track in Illinois, Hawthorne, offering traditional dirt racing when Arlington's season ends come September 27, I'll have to check it out and see how it holds up.
But as Arlington is one of the finest tracks I've visited for family entertainment, atmosphere, live race-viewing, and amenities, it's going to have to be one hell of a track.