Fans flock to Arlington Park for track's likely final Derby Day
A sellout crowd poured into Arlington Park Saturday for what is likely the final Kentucky Derby Day.
Most everyone in attendance took the occasion to don impressive hats, as is the tradition for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Because of COVID-19 safety measures, admission to the park, which has capacity for around 47,000, was capped at 4,500 people.
While it was a beautiful day to be at the track, the winds were howling and every few minutes an ornate hat would slip from its owner's head and bound across the stands.
Mother and daughter pair Colleen and Nicole King of Hawthorn Woods clutched their fancy hats to their heads as they walked along the concourse. Colleen King said she worked downtown in the '80s and '90s and would regularly get off the Metra at the racetrack for the "businessman special."
"It's like so nostalgic and heartwarming and disappointing at the same time to think this may be our last derby," Colleen King said. "We've got very mixed emotions about being here."
Track owner Churchill Downs Inc. put the 326-acre property on the market in February, and interested developers and investors will submit proposals by June 15.
Among the best dressed in attendance was Don Miller of Glendale Heights, who wore a striking black-and-white checkered suit to the park. He said he's been coming to Arlington for 25 years and was sad it might be coming to an end.
"It's one of the most beautiful tracks," Miller said. "They talk about Santa Anita as the number one track in the country, but that looks bad compared to this place."
Miller said he's going to appreciate the last year and has already paid for admission to the park through the end of the year.
Mid-interview, a woman came up asking to get her photo taken with Miller and his fabulous suit, which he obliged.
Another person getting photo requests on Saturday was Monica Benson, the bugler at Arlington Park since 2014. Benson, dressed in a red riding outfit with matching hat -- which was pinned firmly to her head so it wouldn't blow away -- said that her job is a mix between musician and Disney princess because of all the fan interaction she does between blowing her horn to call the racers to the post.
Benson said among the behind-the-scenes things she'll miss if this is the last racing season, is warming up underneath the stands by the outrider ponies, the calm horses that accompany the excitable race horses to the starting gate.
"There's one horse in particular that really loves the sound of the trumpet, so he'll come and rub his head on my shoulder," Benson said.
Another longtime park employee Frank Marchionne, the lead supervisor for the park's guest services department, said he was going to enjoy every day the park was open. Marchionne, who has worked at the park 11 years, said he's hopeful as the months go on the park will be allowed to let more and more people in.
"I mean this from my heart -- I'm not just saying it, it's a treat working here, it really is," Marchionne said shortly after helping a woman retrieve her hat. "This is nice, seeing the activity, hearing the noise. I enjoy the heck out of it."