The horses race in a big, empty Arlington Park
Arlington International Racecourse normally attracts thousands of spectators to watch and wager on the Sport of Kings.
But on Thursday, nary more than a couple dozen jockeys, trainers and racing officials - all wearing face masks - were at the Arlington Heights oval for the start of what will be an unusual, abbreviated racing season.
The 2 p.m. first post came after months of back-and-forth among track management; local, county and state health departments; and the governor's office, which ultimately allowed the track to reopen for racing, so long as spectators aren't allowed in.
"Obviously given the pandemic, we had some concerns about how you could introduce a few hundred people from various places in the country and come in town and live in close proximity with one another," Arlington Heights Village Manager Randy Recklaus said.
But after weeks of meetings, correspondence and on-site visits by the health departments, Arlington was granted permission to reopen its backstretch to workers and horses earlier this month. The reopening plan has meant health screenings for workers, required masks, social distancing and hand-sanitizing stations throughout the backstretch.
For now, no fans are allowed inside the park, though track officials hope to persuade state regulators to allow some spectators before the season concludes Sept. 26.
Recklaus said it's too early to say if that plan would receive the multiple layers of regulatory approvals needed.
"It's fair to say things are very fluid everywhere right now," he said. "Certainly something like a spectator sport, you can't plan more than a couple weeks ahead at this point."
Normally, the track would generate between $800,000 and $1 million annually for village coffers - but only some of that depends on having spectators go through the turnstiles. The village receives sales and admissions taxes, but a large portion comes from property taxes, Recklaus said.
"Some revenue comes to us whether the track is open or not," he said. "For us, it's much more about the value of the track as part of our heritage and history, and first and foremost we're worried about the health and safety of the community and folks working in the facility."