ARLINGTON PARK, Ill. — It had been going on each scheduled race day at Arlington International: the national anthem ahead of the first race, the wagering on each race, and the horses thundering down the backstretch.
Thursday, though, offered something distinctive and long-awaited at the horse racing track in the suburb just north of Chicago. Spectators passed through the gates for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, placing bets in person, and cheering on their horses. While capacity was limited to 300 fans per health departments in the Village of Arlington Heights, Cook County, and the state of Illinois, one could sense a small return to normal as Arlington became the first sports venue in the state open to fans.
“It’s great because we’re welcoming back people that haven’t been here and expressed a desire to be here,” Arlington International President Tony Petrillo said ahead of the day’s race schedule. “What’s going to be the best part is the first time the horses are running down the stretch and you hear people cheering for them. It’s been dead silent prior to this date.”
Arlington International is running live racing Thursdays through Saturdays and will be operating Saturday for the Kentucky Derby. The demand has been readily apparent, with all of the Friday and Saturday race dates already sold out, and limited numbers available for the remaining Thursday dates.
The socially distanced layout
Seating areas are spread out across the exterior parallel to the track, and with the capacity of 300 and a maximum of four to a table, those seating areas are comfortably socially distanced in each section. There are single-manned concession stands with beverage and food options between sections and a combination of manual tellers and automated kiosks throughout the level.
The four manual tellers are being used mainly for cashing winning ticket purposes, though bettors willing to wager at least $50 in total bets can also conduct transactions. There are 15 automated kiosks in groups of threes for patrons to place all other wagers. With tickets not going on sale until Tuesday afternoon, it was difficult to judge how close to the 300 capacity was reached, but it appeared at least 50 people had passed through the gates prior to the first race. Masks are to be worn at all times when not eating or drinking at the tables
Petrillo said Arlington usually employs 300 full-time workers and 1,100 seasonal workers during a normal live racing schedule, numbers that have dropped to 80 and approximately 110, respectively, during this reopening. He noted the daily COVID-19 testing along the backstretch did allow some easier transitioning to other protocols for the opening process.
The Arlington International president conceded financially “it’s definitely not a win,” but as a longtime resident of Arlington Heights, Petrillo felt the pull of the community as a driving force to make the effort to open for the final 12 race days.
“From a community perspective and the commitment to our customers, it’s definitely a big win for us,” he said. “Whether it’s 300 or 30,000, to hear people cheering, see the color of their shirts, their smiles coming back into the facility, it’s just going to be very special and we get to bring back additional people to come back and work and give them their jobs back.”