As the historic racetrack on the corner of Euclid and Wilke opens its gates for another season today, more than 2,000 horses are expected to find a home on the Arlington International Racecourse backstretch this summer.
"The number of horses should be as large as it has been since 2008," said Tony Petrillo, the track's president since 2010. "If all the trainers come who say they will, we'll have a good season. We would have about 300 more horses than a year ago."
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Arlington International Racecourse factsThe 89-day thoroughbred racing season opens Friday at Arlngton International Racecourse. Here is some more information about special events and key dates:
Racing dates: May 2 through Sept. 28 with live races Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday plus Memorial Day and Labor Day. Post time is 1 p.m. Thursday, Saturday, Sunday and holidays, and 1 p.m. Friday (May 2-June 6), changing to 3 p.m. Fridays later in the season (June 13 - Aug. 29) and 1 p.m. Fridays Sept. 5-26.
Tickets: General admission is $6 for adults ($4 seniors) on most days. GA tickets for Kentucky Derby Day are $12. GA tickets for Arlington Million Day are $22.
Miller Lite Party in the Park: Runs May 23 through Aug. 29, with the new Remix Series featuring a live disc jockey playing the hits and taking requests until the last race on Fridays from May 23 until June 20. In July and August, the Miller Lite Party in the Park Concert Series features live popular cover bands performing on the main band stage starting at 3 p.m. and into the evening.
Horses & Hops: On Saturdays from May 24 until Aug. 30, Arlington and Miller Lite will feature a different craft, cider, or specialty brand from MillerCoors that will be paired with a specialty food item. Includes live musical performances by Chicagoland cover bands.
Sunday Family Days: Presented by Daily Herald, this event has been expanded with more kid-friendly entertainment in the Junior Jockey Zone including pony rides, a petting zoo, face painting, magician, caricaturist, juggler, bounce house and hands on activities from 1 p.m. - 5 p.m.
Special datesFriday: Opening Day with free general admission
Saturday: Kentucky Derby Day
May 11: Mother's Day with roses given to first 5,000 Moms
May 17: Preakness Stakes Day
May 23-26: Memorial Day weekend includes the start of live musical entertainment every Friday and Saturday, plus Family Day every Sunday through Labor Day.
May 25: Chicago Cubs Day activities
June 1: Northwestern University Day
June 7: Binny's Taste at the Track, featuring over 400 varieties of wine. Requires a separate ticket, not included with General Admission. Limited number of tickets will be available.
June 15: Father's Day activites
June 21: Girls Day Out with a live band and special packages
June 22: Chicago Bears Day activites
June 27: Party in the Park After Dark I - Country Night features an open bar and live music as part of a special ticket package.
June 28 : Celebrate Chicago Day activities
July 4: Racing, music and fireworks
July 12: Million Preview Day and Chicago Food Truck Festival
July 19: Guys Day Out features cars, beer, live music and more
July 25: Party in the Park After Dark II - Christmas in July with live music and open bar as part of a special ticket package
Aug. 2: Chicago Blackhawks Day activities
Aug. 3: First Responders Day with the Gary Sinise Foundation
Aug. 10: Chicago White Sox Day activities
Aug. 12: Homestretch For Heroes 5k
Aug. 16: The 32nd Running of the Arlington Million, plus the Beverly D. and Secretariat Stakes
Aug. 24: Fiesta de Arlington celebrates Hispanic Heritage with specialty food items, drink specials, and music
Aug. 29-Sept. 1: Labor Day Weekend features the final Party in the Park After Dark, Family Day activities, and entertainment.
Aug. 29: Party in the Park After Dark III - 80's Night with an open bar, live music as part of a special ticket package.
Sept. 6: Binny's Taste at the Track returns and requires a special ticket, not included with General Admission. Limited number of tickets will be available.
Sept. 13: Septemberfest with favorite food trucks and craft beer
Sept. 28: Closing Day
Special posts: At 12:45 p.m. on May 3 (Kentucky Derby) and 12:30 p.m. on Aug. 16 (Arlington Million)
The main reason for the larger head count is because Keeneland Race Course will begin construction May 19 on a new dirt track to replace its Polytrack synthetic surface.
"With Keeneland's track not available, a lot of people are looking for another competitive horse meet where they can run and not have to ship their horses," Petrillo said.
"Secondly, we expect a very high interest in our stakes program with many larger stables bringing quality stake horses. We also have a solid overnight purse structure top to bottom to reward daily purses of $220,000."
Petrillo expects the track to draw a larger string of horses across all categories, which leads to better wagering opportunities for gimmick bets that involve multiple races. He said it also would bring higher quality stakes that the wagering public will appreciate.
"Trainers can now bring their whole stable and not worry about finding spots for their horses or having to ship out," Petrillo added.
Racing secretary Chris Polzin hopes to be able to mix things up a little more when he creates the racing lineup.
"As long as everyone shows up we seem to have an overabundance of horses," he said. "With Keeneland going to dirt, it should help us. A lot of people would stay there and train their horses. So now they're scrambling to find places."
Among the trainers expected to house horses at Arlington, Polzin said, are Phil Sims, Mike Maker and Darrin Miller. Among the returnees from last year are defending champion Wayne Catalano and runner-up Larry Rivelli.
Pavel Vashchenko could bring as many as 60 horses to the backside.
"When I visited his farm in Tampa, he had 185 horses in training," Polzin said. "There's a 7-furlong dirt course and 6½-furlong turf course. So as the season goes along, he'll have horses getting ready. He has a nice stock of horses training."
Jockey Emmanuel Esquivel, who made history by winning the 2013 Arlington riding title as an apprentice (83 wins, $1.8 million in purse earnings), is returning to defend his title after riding in New York over the winter.
He will try to become the first back-to-back champ since Rene Dougas in 2008. If he does, he will join a prestigious list that includes Eddie Arcaro, Bill Hartack, Earlie Fires and Eddie Delahoussaye.
One newcomer expected to ride this summer is 26-year-old Sheldon Russell, who over the last six-plus years won titles at Colonial (2010 and 2011) and Pimlico (2011).
Among the standouts he has ridden is 2010 Arlington Handicap champion Rahystrada. Russell steered Rahystrada to victory the 2011 Grade III Colonial Turf Cup.
Turf racing is always a highlight each summer at Arlington, but it may take awhile before fans are betting their favorite runner on the Arlington green.
"Last year, right off the bat, we were running two or three races a week on the turf," Polzin said. "But with the perma frost from this past winter, it doesn't look like we'll have that opportunity. I'm told there is enough root to grass. But you still don't need to be running (on the sod) at the beginning of May when you can be running at the end of September.
"You've got to be careful. I know everyone doesn't want to hear that, but it is what it is."
And it's going to stay Polytrack at Arlington, which will be only one of five tracks with the synthetic surface after this year along with Golden Gate Fields, Presque Isle Downs, Woodbine and Turfway Park.
Like Keeneland, Del Mar is replacing its synthetic surface with dirt after its 2014 meet. Santa Anita switched back to dirt in 2010.
"Statistically, Polytrack heavily favors a safer surface with less breakdowns," Petrillo said. "Last year we had only three catastrophic breakdowns on the Polytrack, which is a big change from the average of 19 to 22 on dirt courses in same number of race days."
Petrillo believes the reason other tracks have gone back to the dirt is because that's where trainers want to run their horses.
"A lot of horsemen are set in their ways and don't want to disrupt their training regimen," he said.
Of course, Arlington runs some of its biggest races, such as the Aug. 16 Arlington Million, on the turf.
"We probably have one of the premier turf meets in the country," Petrillo added. "We have a turf course that is 130 feet wide and is able to use 15 different starting lanes."