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updated: 4/30/2021 8:12 PM

Arlington Park’s final turn begins: Here’s what you need to know as season begins

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  • A tractor works on the Arlington Park track as live racing is televised on the finish line screen Thursday. The iconic Arlington Heights track opens its final season Friday.

    A tractor works on the Arlington Park track as live racing is televised on the finish line screen Thursday. The iconic Arlington Heights track opens its final season Friday.
    John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 

Much has changed in and around the Arlington Heights oval that's hosted horse racing since Luxembourg was first to cross the finish line during the inaugural race on Oct. 13, 1927.

There were the lean times of the Great Depression and World War II. But then came the golden era that saw the world's first million-dollar race.

There was the devastating fire that destroyed the venue's grandstand. It would later rise from the ashes to become a suburban family entertainment destination, local institution and one of the gems of American racing.

But on Friday afternoon at Arlington Park -- amid a community emerging from a pandemic -- it'll be back to the basics: jockeys atop equines and fans in the grandstand watching the sport of kings.

An Arlington Park worker hoses off the tunnel leading from the track to the paddock as part of preparations for Friday's opening day of the 2021 season, the last at the historic Arlington Heights oval.
An Arlington Park worker hoses off the tunnel leading from the track to the paddock as part of preparations for Friday's opening day of the 2021 season, the last at the historic Arlington Heights oval. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

Up to 4,500 are expected to gather -- wearing masks and at a social distance -- for the first post of what's expected to be the iconic racecourse's last season.

"'The final turn' is what you'll see on all our advertising slates. Maybe 'the last furlong' for the last month. We're all just very focused on conducting a very successful race meet this year," said Tony Petrillo, the racetrack's president. "In previous years, a lot of people came for the entertainment, concerts and pony rides. Right now, this is the pure racing experience, until we get some indication that some restrictions might be eased."

That this 68-day racing season will be Arlington's last is all but guaranteed, amid track owner Churchill Downs Inc.'s ongoing process to sell the 326 acres of prime real estate at Euclid Avenue and Wilke Road. Interested developers and investors are set to submit proposals by June 15.

Reserved seating is marked at Arlington Park in preparation for opening day, Friday.
Reserved seating is marked at Arlington Park in preparation for opening day, Friday. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

The corporate brass at the Louisville, Kentucky-based horse racing and gambling company have expressed a desire to relocate their racing license elsewhere in Illinois, though there are legal questions over the process to do so.

For now, Petrillo, the longtime on-site manager for Churchill, has his skeleton crew of 270 seasonal and full-time employees -- from betting window clerks to kitchen cooks, down from the usual 1,100 -- ready to welcome fans. Gates open at 1 p.m., with the first post at 2:25 p.m.

"We will continue to operate until we hear otherwise," Petrillo said.

Much like the end of last year's abbreviated 30-day season -- shortened by COVID-19 and a bitter contract dispute between track management and horse owners and trainers -- the start of this season in and around the grandstand will look different from pre-pandemic times.

Fans with tickets -- sold only online and a month in advance at a time, for now -- must enter the grounds through the Euclid gate. After parking, or getting off the nearby Metra train, guests can enter the facility only through the west-side clubhouse entrance. There are staggered admittance times, depending on which section your seat is in.

Popcorn is made in preparation for Friday's opening day at Arlington Park.
Popcorn is made in preparation for Friday's opening day at Arlington Park. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

Under the track's current health and safety regulations, all patrons must wear face coverings, unless seated and consuming food or beverages, and they will be asked to stay in their ticketed section unless in line for concessions, restrooms or wagering.

No outside coolers will be allowed, and access to the paddock and certain areas of the grandstand building will be off limits.

There also won't be live music, family days or other promotional events, but Petrillo is hopeful that could change by the end of the season based on new health guidance and review by the state, county and village health departments.

And while only reserved seating is available through online purchase, Petrillo hopes the track will be allowed to offer general admission tickets this summer. Under normal times, the track's capacity is 32,000.

New Arlington Park commemorative gear will be for sale in the gift shop on the concourse as the track's staff prepares for Friday's opening day of the 2021 season.
New Arlington Park commemorative gear will be for sale in the gift shop on the concourse as the track's staff prepares for Friday's opening day of the 2021 season. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

Tickets for June races go on sale May 12, July races June 9, August races July 7, and September races Aug. 11.

"It gives us the opportunity to pivot very quickly and either respond to eased restrictions or pull back and have more strict guidelines or enforcement, without impacting the customer experience," Petrillo said.

After tickets for the first month of the season went on sale April 15, premium days like Kentucky Derby Day -- which is Saturday -- and Mother's Day on May 9 were the first to go. Saturdays are also filling up quickly, Petrillo said.

The track will mainly run races Fridays and Saturdays until June, when the schedule expands to Thursdays, with the addition of Sundays by July.

Winning ticket cash payout machines are stocked for Friday's opening day at Arlington Park.
Winning ticket cash payout machines are stocked for Friday's opening day at Arlington Park. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

There's a range of seating options at various prices, starting at $10 for a grandstand stadium seat and rising for outdoor benches, tables and indoor dining for groups of four to six in the Million Room, Turf Club and Governor's Room. Group outings for 16 people or more are available in outdoor tents.

Petrillo acknowledged the higher prices. For instance, a lower-level homestretch table for four goes for $160 on a standard day, but as much as $400 on fireworks night July 3. All tickets include the cost of admission, reserved seating, preferred parking and race programs, he said.