After growing up on backstretch, exercise rider doesn't want Arlington Park to close

Rumors had been flying for months, but Carlos Espinoza still was shocked when he found out that Arlington Park was put on the market in February.

The 25-year-old, who works as an exercise rider for longtime horse trainer Mike Campbell, grew up on the backstretch, his mother a hot walker and his stepfather a groom. The family divided its time between the Arlington Heights racecourse and Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero, where they also lived on the backstretch.

This is Espinoza's fifth year working at Arlington Park, where he spends his longest season from April to September. He also works at Hawthorne for a few months and spends the rest of the time traveling with Campbell to race tracks in places like Florida, Kentucky and Arkansas.

"Everybody was shocked, thinking what are they going to do now," Espinoza said of the workers' reaction to the pending sale of Arlington Park, whose season starts Friday. Prospective buyers are expected to make their offers by the end of June.

"I will have to look for something outside Illinois and I will not be able to see my daughter in that time."

Espinoza, who lives in Cicero, said he would have liked to go to college and study architecture, but couldn't get a scholarship. So he followed in his family's footsteps and began working as a hot walker. He learned how to ride - "it took me a whole year" - and worked his way to his current position, which he enjoys, he said. "It's another experience riding them."

Espinoza works seven days a week, getting up no later than 4:30 a.m. to be in Arlington Heights by 6 a.m. for a five- to six-hour workday. Some days are easier, with only a couple of hours of work, he said. As for taking time off, "If we don't go one day, who's going to do the job? No one. We kind of get used to that."

He works with 10 to 14 horses at any given time, from young ones that need to be taught not to be scared and to run straight, to more experienced ones that need to be kept relaxed, he said. "Some days we only jog them. Other days we let them gallop. We also let them breeze."

His current favorite horse has a lot of personality - sometimes nice, sometimes mean. "He's a really pretty looking horse and he has a couple of wins already."

As for this upcoming season, Espinoza will continue to do what he's always done - work hard and hope for wins.

"The best part is when we see the horses win races after all the hard work," he said. "That's the best."

  Carlos Espinoza, an exercise rider at Arlington Park, said, "The best part is when we see the horses win races after all the hard work." Brian Hill/
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