‘This is such a grand facility.’ As historic Arlington Park crosses the finish line, horse racing workers wonder how they’ll fill the void

·6 min read

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. — Jockey Jareth Loveberry jumped at the chance to race at Arlington International Racecourse. He moved his family from Michigan to Glen Ellyn to be nearby, and became the winningest jockey on the track for the past two years. Now, with the track expected to close, he doesn’t know where he will go.

Having just recovered from a concussion and bruised ribs in a recent fall from a horse, Loveberry came back this week in hope of racing one more time on the track’s last day Saturday. He’s working to join the names of legendary jockeys who rode there, from Earlie Fires to Pat Day to Willie Shoemaker.

“Arlington is one of the premier race tracks in the country and the world,” Loveberry said. “It’d be really sad to see a place like this go, because they’re not built like this. This is such a grand facility.”

Arlington officials announced they will lay off 237 employees as part of what they called the track’s “permanent” closure on its last day of racing Saturday. Industry members say the closure is the end of a long, slow decline at the track, which used to employ more than 1,000 workers.

Many of the workers are part time and seasonal, and others work full time for horse owners. While they normally transition to other tracks at the end of the season, many don’t know what they will do next spring if Arlington is closed after nearly a century of racing.

Churchill Downs Inc. announced this year that it is selling the track and its surrounding 326-acre property in Arlington Heights. Bidders include the Chicago Bears and at least one group that wants to save horse racing at the park. But CDI torpedoed any plans to continue racing next year when it decided against asking regulators to authorize it and when it declined to get a casino license for the site, after years of asking state lawmakers to allow that.

Critics say Churchill Downs is trying to prevent competition with its other property, Rivers Casino in Des Plaines. Its business partners at Rivers are also potential candidates to build new casinos in Chicago and Waukegan. Churchill Downs said it can make more money at Rivers because it won’t have to pay extra for horse racing prize money, or purses.

In the process, people who have spent their lives in racing are losing their professional home base. Dee Poulos, known by some as the queen of the track, has been a trainer since before she and her husband, the late Ernie Poulos, trained Black Tie Affair to win the Breeder’s Cup and national Horse of the Year in 1991.

Her stable office is decorated with mementos from her career, with trophies, framed photos of her horses and husband with former Chicago Bears stars like Mike Ditka, and a lock of mane from Black Tie Affair. She used to tend a rose garden and hanging ferns around the stables, and kept goats that would stay in stables with the horses to keep them calm. At age 73, she still puts on her black boots and red cowboy hat to check on the horses every day, watching them work out and getting them ready to race.

She and her 10 horses will move to Hawthorne Race Course in west suburban Stickney for the fall racing season there, but she doesn’t know what will happen beyond that.

Hawthorne plans to spend $400 million to open a racino in 2022, and officials say they can accommodate everyone from Arlington. But the season at Hawthorne will shift back and forth between harness and thoroughbred racing, with three months of alternating downtime, which may make it difficult to stay.

Poulos grew up riding a pony to school from her family’s farm in Missouri, and kept riding until a fall hurt her back. Whatever happens, she will keep racing.

“This is a way of life, it’s not just a job,” she said. “You have to have a mission in life.”

Arlington President Tony Petrillo said the closure is partly due to being located between both Rivers and the Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin, which could expand substantially.

Petrillo started working for Arlington 28 years ago by helping to build its off-track betting parlors. He recalled days when fans cheered previous track owner Richard Duchossois as he came through the stands, or when Illinois-bred horse Pizza Man defeated favored European challengers to win the Arlington Million race in 2015.

“We have a lot to be thankful for,” Petrillo said. “We’ve had the most magnificent facility in sports, definitely in horse racing.”

Petrillo said track officials hope to continue off-track betting at some sites, along with advanced deposit wagering.

Previously, Churchill Downs oversaw the closing of Hollywood Park in Inglewood, Calif., and Calder Race Course near Miami, where it replaced horses with jai alai, reportedly so it could run a casino there more cheaply.

If it closes Arlington, CDI will be the object of scorn from many fans and horse workers across the state. Illinois Racing Board Commissioner Alan Henry ripped Churchill Downs at the board’s meeting Thursday, saying Arlington’s end “would be yet another bloody stain on the hands of CDI.”

Henry also called for Churchill Downs to pay horse owners about $800,000 it’s projected to earn the rest of this year from off-track and advanced deposit betting he said is dedicated by law to purses.

Track workers interviewed think the track should continue racing under a new owner. They note that horse racing is thriving in states where it’s combined with casinos.

Since opening in 1927, the track previously survived its destruction. After it burned down in 1985, it was resurrected with a sweeping new grandstand that Architectural Digest called one of the most beautiful in the world.

This week, on the track’s last days in action, the work began long before the races. Before dawn, backstretch workers checked the horses for injuries or swelling, brushed them, and got their equipment ready.

Blacksmiths known as farriers heated and fit horseshoes. Riders mounted the horses to take them onto the track for a daily run, their breath rising like smoke as they galloped.

When they returned to their barns, walkers cooled them down. They were bathed, got their legs rubbed and bandaged if necessary, were groomed until their coats are silky, and left to rest with straw, feed and water.

The workers, many of them from Mexico, live in modest apartments between the stables, growing tomatoes and corn, and attending church on the grounds. As the parents work, their children leave on buses for school.

Assistant trainer Ruben Mata, who has worked at the track for more than 30 years and who lives with his family in Cicero, said the workers are worried they will have to follow wherever the owners want to move their horses. “A lot of people depend on this place,” he said.

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