After 90 years, Arlington Park sees a bright future ahead
As it opens for another thoroughbred season on Friday, Arlington International Racecourse celebrates its 90th year on the corner of Northwest Highway and Wilke Road in Arlington Heights.
Visiting the storied suburban landmark has been a tradition for many generations of fans over the past nine decades.
"I don't see that changing," said Howard Sudberry, the track senior marketing director. "Arlington is 90 years old and I bet it's around in 90 more years -- and I like to make an occasional bet."
While there have been better days in terms of attendance and racing dates, Arlington officials are betting on more good times ahead.
"The future is bright," Sudberry said. "I really believe that the legislature in Springfield will pass a law to allow for additional forms of gaming to help Illinois racing compete with other states that have an edge in this area."
That would mean an increase in purses, which would bring in more horses and better horses.
"I am optimistic," Sudberry said. "I think this will happen."
Chairman Richard L. Duchossois has made a lot happen since taking over the business in 1985. While he's made the track more appealing to the casual fans, he stresses that racing be the top priority.
"We have changed with the times," Duchossois said. "We have one of the best management teams in the industry. Our marketing department is very innovative in coming up with special events to bring in people. People want to be entertained and while the racing is a big part of that entertainment it is just part of it."
As always, fans can expect many special events this year.
"We have many things like wine tastings, food truck festivals and special days honoring our partners, like the Chicago Bears and Chicago White Sox," Duchossois said. "But we don't forget the fact that we need to sell mutuel tickets and that racing must remain top notch."
With help from legislators, the purses could be bigger.
"Our team will work with the horsemen and legislators to achieve the goal of maximizing revenue to the state and with all working together everyone will benefit: the taxpayers, the horsemen and the Illinois breeding industry," Sudberry said. "We think that our legislators understand that this billion dollar industry can't survive without a level playing field with the other tracks in surrounding states."
Arlington general manager Tony Petrillo, who joined the track in 1994 after serving with the Illinois Racing Board, has seen a lot of progress in racing.
"Progress has come in the form of investments in technology and the way we advertise, market and promote our product," Petrillo said. "We feature an improved website that allows for easily purchasing tickets on line and the ability to wager on your phone. Our website features virtual tours of our facility."
Arlington has invested millions of dollars to redesign its venues such as the International Skyline Lounge and other outdoor bars and group sales venues.
Petrillo said the future of Arlington depends on the track's ability to remain a creative entertainment venue that appeals to all demographics. Expanded gaming can rebuild racing and provide thousands of jobs, he said. While that would help the state, it also can help Arlington reach its potential.
"We have the finest facilities and perfect location to provide entertainment to go along with our horse racing," Petrillo said.
For example, Arlington is offering two twilight-themed racing events on Saturdays this year. The first is "Life's a Beach" with the facility's decor, food, beverages and music set to remind patrons of a beach-front vacation. There will be enter-to-win contests for Jimmy Buffett concert tickets at Wrigley Field.
The second theme day is "Hollywood Date night," featuring a special classic movie on the large LED board and monitors throughout the facility.
Catering to racing fans also has changed over the years, and Arlington has kept pace, Sudberry noted.
"Now we can bet on our phones," Sudberry said. "We can bet from home on sites like TwinSpires.com. If you can't make it to the track you can go to a Trackside OTB."
Arlington, which features one of the most impressive grandstands in the world, is one of the few tracks that has maintained strong attendance.
"It is beautiful," Sudberry said. "It is as impressive as any sports venue in the world and I've seen many of them. Secondly, we work hard to entertain people before, during and after races."
Just like a Blackhawks and Bulls game, where there is always entertainment between periods and music playing, Arlington tries to do the same.
"We have live bands (in the picnic area on the east end of apron), celebrity appearances and autograph signings," Sudberry said. "We interact with guests through social media. It's impossible to come to Arlington and not have a great time. I have never brought anybody to the track that didn't rave about it and wanted to start making plans to come back. Arlington is one of the real gems of thoroughbred racing."
Live racing runs through Sept. 23. From May 5 through July 9, it will be conducted on Friday, Saturday and Sunday (no races May 7 or May 21).
Racing expands to four days per week on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from July 13 through Sept. 4.
From Sept. 7 through Sept. 23, the live schedule includes racing on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
There will be special live racing conducted on three Mondays: May 29, July 3 and Sept. 4.