Situated just west of downtown Arlington Heights Illinois, and between the towns of Palatine and Mt. Prospect in the near Northwest suburbs of Chicago, Arlington Racetrack was one of the first tracks to be built after WWII and it has influenced horse racing for over 60 years by consistently innovating new and exciting ways to draw in the spectators and fans, while modernizing the safety and reliability of the horses.
As a result the track has hosted some of the biggest races in the world, and attracted some of the largest crowds in horse racing history. While the track is currently in the process of reinvention, today we’ll cover just what makes the Arlington Racetrack so special and why it has remained a mainstay in horse racing for nearly 90 years.
Horse-racing is a dangerous sport, but today’s jockey’s and horse are much more protected than back in the early days of racing. Arlington Raceway was one of the first to recognize that a safer experience would translate to better competition since many horse owners wanted to protect their investments from injury.
It was the first oval racetrack to be designed with safety considerations in mind instead of just being an open field where people would race their horses against each other and featured a modern drainage system that would reduce puddles from forming that could trip up and injure the horse or the jockey.
Later on, in 1941, Arlington became the first track ever to bank the turns on its turf track, which improved the safety of the horses and riders. The track was also lengthened, widened, and re-graded to provide better competition.
Spectators come to horse races to have fun, get dressed up, and hopefully make some money. Unfortunately most of the racetracks around the turn of the century were designed with cramped stands, where it was difficult to see the action on the field.
To help get the customer more into the race, the Arlington Racetrack was the first racetrack in the Midwest to install a PA system. Utilizing the voice of legendary RKO newscaster and race-calling legend Clem McCarthy, the announcer kept the crowd on it’s feet nearly every race with his signature suspense-packed, husky delivery. The installation of this system also made it possible to broadcast the signal for people who were not able to attend the races in person to still have a chance to bet on the outcomes.
To efficiently handle the betting volume from the subsequent attendance increases, Arlington Park was the first racetrack in the United States to install an electric “totalizator”. The totalizator is a device that calculates and displays the bets that have been placed on a race. This allowed for a more efficient way of handling the bets for the track. The totalizator was installed in 1933 and it was one of the first devices of its kind in the world.
When Arlington installed the largest closed-circuit color TV in all of sports, it forever changed the way horse racing was watched. The TV, which was placed in the grandstand, allowed fans to see every angle of the race and made for an even more thrilling experience. Outside of the track, Arlington Park was an early adopter new medium called “Television” was also the location of where thoroughbred racing’s first color broadcast debuted in 1955. The live feed display naturally led to an increase in the number of viewers, which increased fan interest all over America.
Arlington had its first card of thoroughbred racing on May 19, 1949. For many years it was owned by the family of Robert Bartner. Under his ownership the track became one of the most respected tracks of the era and led “Daily Racing Form”
The track has also been home to harness racing for much of its history. It hosted the World Trotting Derby from 1981 until 2006, when that race moved to Balmoral Park after a renovation project at Arlington was completed. The American-National , which had been run since 1945 at Sportsman’s Park, moved to Arlington in 2007 after that track was closed.
The track’s major stake is the Arlington Matron Stakes (gr. III), run each September since 1959. The race draws some of the best older fillies and mares to Chicago for a purse of $150,000.
The track’s most notable race is the Arlington Million, which was held for the first time in 1981. It quickly established itself as one of the top races in North America. Its purse of $1 million is the largest on turf, and one of the largest for any race held in North America.
The track’s most important single race, however, may be the Washington Park Handicap (gr. IIIT), which has attracted some of racing’s best grass runners since its inception in 1972.
The track has attracted huge crowds twice, in the 1970s and 1990s when Match races between Safely Kept, Ta Wee , Tidal Pool and many others raced to victory here.
Prior to the 2007 meet, the track had made several changes in an effort to boost attendance and attract more fans to the facility. Among them are free parking, free general admission for everyone on Friday before 6 PM, lower prices throughout the rest of the week (although this is not free general admission) and more simulcasting.
The current ownership group, led by Fred Brei, a Chicago businessman took over in early January 2007 after an 8-day auction and quickly began working on updating its facilities after all of the previous owners had let it fall into disrepair. A new electronic scoreboard was installed in time for the 2007 spring/summer meet, while construction continues on a massive renovation project which is expected to be completed in time for the 2008 spring/summer meet.
The Arlington Racetrack changed horse racing and is credited with transforming the industry for the better. The track’s continual innovation in betting, spectator experience and marketing led to a sharp increase in attendance for races and an overall improvement of the experience for bettors.