Fans enjoy opening day at Arlington Park, with a little sadness
Opening day Friday at Arlington Park attracted a wide mix of people -- horse racing devotees, first timers, easygoing viewers -- and pretty much to a person, they expressed dismay that this is likely to be the track's last season.
"I think it's sad," said Gina Santucci of Naperville, who said she's been going to the racetrack every season for two decades or more.
The day was nearly perfect, with a pristine blue sky, verdant greenery and majestic horses, their coats shiny in the brilliant sun. While the atmosphere was more subdued than normal -- less noisy, less crowded, no food court indoors, and strict masks and social distancing rules due to COVID-19 -- it was also cheerful.
"It's fun and I love the horses," said Santucci, who donned a fashionable hat for the occasion.
Newly married couple Tim and Ruthann Dunn of Grayslake said they plan to make the most of the season, just in case it's the last. They already were thinking of coming back for Father's Day.
"It just has that old-school charm and feel," Ruthann Dunn said. "It's so clean and so nice. It would be such a shame if it closed."
Track owner Churchill Downs Inc. put the 326-acre property on the market in February, and interested developers and investors will submit proposals by June 15.
But on Friday, it was all about cheering for your horse for 9-year-old Nolan Maas of Channahon, who bet $2 on the first winner of the day, "Hey Hey." Nolan said he doesn't know why he picked that horse, but he knows how he plans to spend his hard-earned win: on his current favorite game, NBA 2K.
His father, Kevin Maas, who sported a Bears sweatshirt, said he'd be OK with the Chicago Bears moving to Arlington Park, one of the many possibilities for the racetrack's future, according to Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes.
But Maas' family friend Dana Muhr of Lockport said out-of-town football fans might be disappointed. "Imagine you're from New Orleans and instead of going to Soldier Field in Chicago, you come here," she said.
Another winner on Friday was Melissa Hernandez of Plainfield, who bet $20 with her husband on Irish Lighted Road, the winner of the second race. The couple -- who calculated they won $160 -- were among a group of friends there to celebrate the birthday of Edwin Ayala of Schaumburg.
This was Hernandez's first time at the track and she loved the experience, she said. "I think it's great."
Friends Marian Miller and Heather Andreasen, along with Andreasen's 4-year-old daughter Laylah, drove six hours from the Minneapolis area to make it on time to watch the first race Friday. The two met at a racetrack, they said, and knowing this might be the last season at Arlington, they weren't willing to miss the occasion.
"It's beautiful," said Andreasen, who works as a hot walker, walking horses to cool them down after a workout.
"To me, it's like the Gulfstream of the Midwest," said Miller, referring to Gulfstream Park racetrack in Florida.
Arlington Park is not just a venue for fun and bets. It also holds personal, meaningful memories.
Scott Dornhecker of Huntley will never forget how, as a little boy in 1973, he got the chance to watch legendary Triple Crown winner Secretariat easily win the Arlington Invitational at Arlington Park.
"My mom said to me, 'Look at that horse. It's the greatest racehorse in the world,'" he said. "I've been fixated ever since."
On Friday, Dornhecker and his wife, Sheryl Taylor, divided their attention between the live races and a TV screen showing races at Churchill Downs Racetrack in Kentucky. The couple normally would be at Churchill Downs, which opened for the season earlier this week, if not for COVID-19.
"It's so sad," Dornhecker said of the possible closure of Arlington Park. But he holds out hope that someone like Frank Stronach, who owns several racetracks including Santa Anita Park, will step in to buy it, he said.
Losing the track would mean parting with co-workers who are like family, employees said.
Ken Sommers, who owns horses, said he started going to the track in 1980 and has loved working there post-retirement for the last five seasons. On Friday, he helped people find their seats, but he's also given tours and "track talks." His daughter even got married there a few years ago, he said.
"Everybody here is so nice. I don't want to see anybody lose their job," Sommers said.
Bartender Jacques Besson, a native of France who's worked at the track for 21 years, said he relishes seeing customers return year after year.
As for the track, well, "Look at it," he said. "It's beautiful."