'Today's the funeral' Arlington Park reaches finish line as fans say goodbye to Illinois' grand racing palace

On a fall afternoon nearly 94 years ago, thousands gathered for the first horse race at a new track along the railroad line in Arlington Heights.

The venue was to be, founder Harry D. “Curly” Brown told the press at the time, “the most beautiful track in America.”

Millions of milestones and memories were to be made in the ensuing years:

The first photo-finish camera and electric starting gate in Chicago racing.

A devastating fire, and miraculous rebuild.

A million-dollar race, to put the local oval on the international stage.

Family fun, especially on Mother's Day, and Fourth of July fireworks.

A countless number of horses, jockeys, trainers, owners, spectators, racing programs, mutuel tickets and buglers' calls to post later, Arlington Park hosted perhaps its final race early Saturday evening in front of a sold-out crowd of 7,500 who returned for the final turn.

The horseplayers and railbirds roared as the thoroughbreds came rumbling down the stretch of the turf course during the ninth and final race, only increasing in boisterousness as the equines approached the finish.

Sister Ruler, a 7-year-old Illinois-bred mare riden by jockey Constantino Roman, was first to cross the finish line. The 5½-furlong race was named Luxembourg, in tribute to the 3-year-old horse who won Arlington's inaugural race on Oct. 13, 1927.

After the last race, there were reactions typical to those of the winner's circle: elation and euphoria, for winning horse owner Keith Hoffman and his group of family and friends who high-fived, hugged and posed for pictures.

“At this point, I hate to say goodbye to this, but if you're going to go, this is the way to go,” said Hoffman, who plans to bring his horses to Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero next month, and then Tampa Bay Downs and Gulfstream Park in Florida next year.

But amid the pageantry of the winner's circle, an overwhelming sadness permeated the crowd at large in the grandstand, many pausing after the last race to reflect on the history and legacy of Illinois' grand racing palace.

Some wiped back tears.

“I've cried all morning,” said Marlene Brown, a mutuel clerk for the past 39 years. “I watched it burn. I watched it rise. We worked in the tents. We worked in the stands outside there. We have been through everything here. We just love it. It's our livelihood. It's more than a job.”

Brown started coming to Arlington and other tracks as a little girl, learning the ropes of the job from her dad, Joe Hecht.

“I feel like I'm losing him all over again. I mean, this is so sad, so horrible, and it's so awful that there's no reason that this should happen.”

“Today's the funeral,” she said.

Arlington's swan song was held amid the ongoing sale process for the 326-acre property at Euclid Avenue and Wilke Road. Track owner Churchill Downs, Inc. is selling the expansive site for redevelopment, and has been combing through proposals and offers since a mid-June deadline.

Among the bidders that have been revealed publicly: the Chicago Bears, who have toyed with the idea of leaving the city for the suburbs, and specifically Arlington Park, in the past; a consortium led by former Arlington Park President Roy Arnold who wants to preserve the oval and grandstand for horse racing; and a host of mixed use developers, including Chicago-based Glenstar Properties, Schaumburg-based UrbanStreet Group and Naperville-based Crown Community Development.

Corporate brass at Churchill, the Louisville, Kentucky-based horse racing and gambling company, have only said they received “numerous” bids and are working through the process to select a buyer.

Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes said he expects the company to make an announcement sometime this fall.

Amid the backdrop of an uncertain future, longtime track-goers Saturday spent one more time inside the stately six-story grandstand, at the betting windows and in the suites, around the paddock and on the apron, ahead of a fireworks show that capped the night.

Fans started lining up before the gates opened at 1 p.m., ready to wager on a full race card that featured nine races and about a dozen horses per race.

For a moment, it was like old times, when the sport of kings was truly king.

But the regulars know how much has changed over the years at Arlington, and in a horse racing industry that's been in gradual decline for decades.

“The state could've helped a long time ago and they didn't when they were begging for it, before Rivers (Casino) opened and all that,” said Mark Vicari, of Roselle, in reference to the slots and tables games Churchill and horsemen lobbied for in Springfield for decades.

By the time the massive state gambling expansion was approved in June 2019, Churchill only months before had taken a majority stake in Rivers, the state's most lucrative casino, in nearby Des Plaines.

Churchill officials said the 2019 law's tax structure and an increasingly saturated gambling market would make it hard to gain an acceptable financial return at Arlington. But unlike at Rivers, revenue from added gambling at Arlington would also be funneled into horse racing purses.

Vicari said he's still hopeful he'll be back at Arlington watching horse races under new ownership. Now 61, he's been coming to the track since he was 18.

“I can't see this building going down,” he said. “I really can't.”

Horses can still train on the course during the upcoming week, ahead of Hawthorne's upcoming fall meet. But the Arlington barns have to be vacated by Tuesday, Oct. 5.

  The sun sets on Arlington Park Saturday night after the final race of 2021 - and perhaps forever, amid an ongoing property sale process by owner Churchill Downs Inc. Mark Welsh/
  Fans in the grandstand cheer as the ninth and final race heads towards the finish line Saturday evening at Arlington Park. Brian Hill/
  Spectators get a view of the horses in the paddock on Arlington Park's likely final day on Saturday. Brian Hill/
  Fans took in what was likely the last day of racing Saturday at Arlington Park. Track management limited capacity to 7,500 amid staffing shortages. Brian Hill/
  A horse greets spectators in the paddock as the equines head to the track Saturday for the likely final races at Arlington Park. Brian Hill/
  For nearly four decades, Marlene Brown of Niles has been taking horseplayers' bets as a mutuel clerk at Arlington Park. "We have been through everything here. We just love it. It's our livelihood. It's more than a job," Brown said. Brian Hill/
  Fans cheer as the horses head for home in the first race Saturday at Arlington Park, bringing the likely end an era of horse racing in Arlington Heights. Brian Hill/
  Arlington Park track announcer John Dooley calls the third race Saturday from his perch on the fifth level of the grandstand. Brian Hill/
  Arlington Park President Tony Petrillo walks across the turf course ahead of the final day of racing at the Arlington Heights track. Brian Hill/
  Splash for Gold, (7), ridden by Samuel Camacho, Jr., tries to pull ahead of Storminside, (2), ridden by Christopher Emigh, during the first race Saturday at Arlington Park. Splash for Gold won by a nose. Brian Hill/
  A bettor prepares to place his wagers Saturday on the final day of racing at Arlington Park. Brian Hill/
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