Arlington Park still has horses - until this week

Nearly two years after the last horse race at Arlington Park, the last remaining equines finally are set to leave in the coming days.

Despite the closure of the historic local oval and demolition of the grandstand and other facilities by the Chicago Bears, a small import/export operation for horses traveling internationally has remained on the backstretch.

"Believe it or not, there's horses still there," said Matt Haug, owner of Chicago Import Quarantine. "Obviously, we're (away) from any demolition, and horses or people are not in any danger. We're still operating partially."

When the Bears took possession of the 326-acre Arlington Heights property in February, the NFL franchise agreed to extend Haug's lease of the backstretch barns on a month-to-month basis. Haug is awaiting final approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture so he can move his importing business to a newly built facility near Randall Road and Interstate 90 in West Dundee. He moved the exporting operation there last weekend, providing the government-mandated quarantine for a set of horses before their flight to Australia.

"The Bears have been extremely cooperative," Haug said. "And we're very thankful for them cooperating with us and letting us continue and not disrupting the flow of business with the horses while we make the transition to our new location, which should be very soon."

Teardown of the stately six-story grandstand started in June, but the barns that housed hundreds of thoroughbreds on the west side of the sprawling property have remained so far untouched.

Haug said wrecking crews are starting work on the nearby dorms where backstretch workers lived.

"You hardly notice the construction while you're there. It's a huge property," Haug said. "We just take a very small tiny piece of it."

Haug got a U.S. Department of Agriculture license in 2010 for the import quarantine operation on the Arlington backstretch, where he leased a 24-stall barn from then-owner Churchill Downs Inc. It was seen as an ideal spot due to the proximity to O'Hare International Airport - a central location serviced by a number of cargo planes and international routes.

The barn has hosted all types of horses: Budweiser Clydesdales, Triple Crown winners, and those returning from international racing festivals. Most of the horses arrive from Europe, but some come from as far as Japan, China, Australia and New Zealand, Haug said.

That includes thoroughbred and Standardbred racehorses but is more commonly equestrian and show horses, he added.

After arriving at O'Hare, horses coming from abroad are required to spend a minimum of 42 hours in the quarantine barns. USDA staff accompany horses on the ride from the airport to Arlington Park, then test the animals for diseases by drawing blood and checking temperatures, among other protocols.

Haug, who oversees six employees, has spent years in the equine and racing business, ever since graduating from the University of Louisville with a degree in equine administration. Just blocks from campus, he worked on the backside at Churchill Downs and later at Maywood Park in Melrose Park. That led him to the international horse transport business.

But it all started years ago growing up in Naperville and making regular trips to Arlington Park.

"As a racing fan, I'm going to miss Arlington," Haug said. "My dad took me to watch the first Arlington Million with John Henry and The Bart, and that's really how I got interested in the whole business. It's very sad to see it go.

"It was just such a great facility."

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A 24-stall horse quarantine operation at Arlington Park is expected to close in the coming days. Courtesy of Chicago Import Quarantine
Chicago Import Quarantine's barn on the Arlington Park backstretch is expected to close in the coming days. Amid the racetrack's closure, a new facility was built in West Dundee. Courtesy of Chicago Import Quarantine
Horses arriving from abroad are required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to quarantine for 42 hours. Courtesy of Chicago Import Quarantine
The 24-stall barn operated by Chicago Import Quarantine on the Arlington Park backstretch got its lease extended by the Chicago Bears. But the barn's closure is only days away, officials said. Courtesy of Chicago Import Quarantine
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