'I hate to see it go': These Arlington Park starters will be there at the finish
William Knott knew he'd always be around horses since he was 15, when he helped a friend train and race quarter horses.
It's a similar story for William Fultz, who started learning to exercise racehorses at age 13.
Between the two, they tally 75 years on the racetrack circuit in the Chicago area -- most of that time at Arlington Park, long considered the gem of thoroughbred racing in the Midwest.
On Saturday, both longtime starting gate workers will launch what could be the final races at the historic Arlington Heights oval before the property is sold for redevelopment.
"I've been hopeful for a long time hoping this day wouldn't happen. I told everybody it'll never close, and I can't believe it," said Knott, who has been head starter since 2000 and was hired at the track as an assistant starter in 1980. "I watched the grandstand burn down. I've seen a lot of things happen -- I've seen a lot of good things and bad things. Now the day has come. I still can't believe it. But we gotta do what we gotta do."
Of the 300 employees at Arlington Park, the 11 starting gate workers hold one of the more distinctive jobs at the track. The union positions -- covered under a contract and represented by a Teamsters local -- come with full benefits and the promise of a pension upon retirement.
Many of them also work at Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero, where thoroughbred racing customarily transitions this time of year. But there's uncertainty next year, when thoroughbred horses will have to share time with harness racing at what could become the Chicago area's lone remaining track.
"That's just the nature of the beast, and that's just the way things turned out," said Fultz, the head assistant starter, who remembers when he started working in the gates three decades ago and area racetracks were open almost daily. "Racing has dwindled down over time."
Only a little has changed about how the starters do their jobs -- some technological improvements, better safety helmets -- but the basics are the same.
One worker, holding a strap attached to the horse's headcollar, guides the equine into one of the rows, as two other workers close the tailgates. A computer database lets them know which horses may have difficulty getting into the gates, and there's various techniques starters can use to help load a problem horse, said Fultz, who recalls getting kicked by horses, including once in the stomach.
But 95% of horses go in easily, thanks to early morning training at the starting gates when young horses begin their racing careers, he said.
"What we like best is the ones that just walk right in there," said Fultz, who is better known as "Okie" around the track, since he grew up in Oklahoma.
Knott stands on the edge of the track, looking for about five cues before pushing the button that sets off the bell and opens the gates.
"I got some riders I listen to pretty good. I try to look at the horses' legs. I try to look at the horses' heads," said Knott, long known on the track as "Blue" for an early penchant for Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. "I'm a pretty vocal starter. 'Okie, in the gate? Okie, I see ya, just relax.' Communication is a big deal for me at the gate."
"A lot of starters like quiet," he continued. "I'd rather have some communication. I feel like it's right. You get a bad start here and there. But you just go for the feel and go for it."
After the last race Saturday night, Knott and Fultz will be back at Arlington Sunday morning, arranging to transport the massive starting gate to Hawthorne for perhaps the final time.
Fultz, 65, who lives only miles away from Hawthorne in Brookfield, hopes to work at least one more year, if not more.
Knott, 64, is preparing to sell the Arlington Heights house where he's lived the past two decades, in light of the racetrack's closure. He'll work a couple of months at Hawthorne before going to Oaklawn racetrack in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where he's been starting horses the last two years.
Knott says he hopes to keep working until age 70, as long as his reflexes and eye coordination stay well.
"It's just been a good job here at Arlington. I've seen a lot of good races and met nice people," Knott said. "It's been a nice career. I hate to see it go."