Racing is back in Arlington. Will spectators soon follow?
When the starting gates open and bell rings this afternoon for the first post of an abbreviated 30-day racing season at Arlington International Racecourse, one sound missing will be that of fans cheering from the grandstand.
But management at the Arlington Heights racetrack still holds out hope they can persuade state regulators to allow in some spectators before season's end Sept. 26.
Until then, bettors can wager online, on mobile apps, or at local off-track-betting parlors, including the one just around the corner from Arlington.
Opening day, which was originally set for May 1, follows the outbreak of COVID-19 and a yearlong contract dispute between management and horse owners and trainers, which at one time made even a shortened season seem impossible.
"We're hopeful that we will have spectators within the first few weeks, for sure by the Kentucky Derby (Sept. 5)," said Arlington President Tony Petrillo, expressing optimism Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health will approve Arlington's proposed reopening plan.
That plan calls for a capacity of about 3,000 or 4,000 spectators, who would have to reserve seating outdoors and could go inside the grandstand only to wager and use restrooms. During normal times, upwards of 30,000 attend Arlington Million Day, which will not take place this year.
Officials say handwashing and sanitation stations would be placed throughout the nearly half-mile outdoor spectator area along the stretch. There also would be a smaller-scale menu of prewrapped food available for purchase outside.
Most major tracks across the country that have reopened have done so without fans, but Monmouth Park in New Jersey opened earlier this month with capacity limits, and Churchill Downs -- the namesake track of Arlington's parent company -- will be allowed to have some spectators for the Kentucky Derby.
Despite the urging of the Illinois Racing Board and Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, brass at the Louisville-based horse racing and gambling corporation initially resisted calls to host an Arlington race meet without fans. Officials pointed to a high cost structure.
Petrillo said Arlington is on track to lose $7 million to $8 million this year with the loss of general admission, group sales and food and beverage revenues. The track for now will operate with a skeleton crew of about 80, rather than its 1,100 full, part-time and seasonal employees.
Having spectators could help mitigate some of those losses, but the decision to have even an abbreviated racing season was made "as a commitment to the industry and community," Petrillo said.
Horses will enter the starting gates a month after Arlington and the horsemen's association inked a two-year agreement after negotiations that went into the eleventh hour. With an agreement in hand and approvals received from state and local health departments, Arlington reopened its backstretch to horses in early July.
Until then, Hawthorne Race Course in Southwest suburban Stickney hosted about 130 thoroughbreds on its backstretch. Others arrived from Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas, for a total of some 600 equines that will race at Arlington this year.
That represents about half of what would be expected in a normal season of some 70 days. But it should be enough for eight races a day and about eight horses per race.
Among the safety precautions in place, only a trainer and handler will be allowed to accompany a horse down a single pathway from the backstretch to the paddock. Both will have their temperatures taken.
Considering the circumstances, the horse population and purse structure -- an estimated average of $130,000 per day -- is "as good as we can hope for," said Chris Block of Elk Grove Village, a horse owner, trainer and breeder who is vice president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.
"I think we're going to do the best we can to put on a 30-day meet there that will serve the horsemen as best we can," said Block, who brought 40 horses to Arlington's backstretch this month. "I'm glad we can all come together as horsemen and Arlington Park to do what is right for the industry, and that is hold a meet."
Live racing is scheduled on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through Sept. 26, with post times at 2 p.m.