Playing the ponies

Horse racing in the Chicago suburbs

Arlington Park
Arlington Park
Arlington Park
Arlington Park
Hawthorne Race Course
Hawthorne Race Course
Hawthorne Race Course
Hawthorne Race Course

Horse racing originated as an ancient sport, but today’s experience is much more than strictly an athletic contest.

With extravagant grandstands, huge purses and elaborate outfits to match, horse racing has become an all-day spectacle that’s fun for any age. Not to mention, the betting, food and drink and activities that make every race a memorable one.

Arlington Park
2200 W Euclid Ave.
Arlington Heights

Recognized as one of the top horse racetracks since it opened in 1927, Arlington Park is an international racetrack with both a polytrack and turf course.

Known to be a trendsetter in the horseracing world during its early days, Arlington was the first track to install a public-address system and had first electric starting gate in Chicago racing. In 2007, it also became the first Midwest track to install a synthetic racetrack surface.

But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing at Arlington. The original grandstand and clubhouse were completely destroyed by a fire in 1985, just 24 days before the Arlington Million. At the time, Arlington was the only track in the world with a million-dollar purse. The team worked tirelessly at the track to clear the rubble and put up stands for the event, which drew 35,000 fans and was dubbed the “Miracle Million.”

The track later reopened in 1989 after a full renovation, with a six-story, 700,000 square foot grandstand and a 35,000-person capacity.

Wayne Gretzky’s horse, the Golden Pheasant, won the Arlington Million in 1990, and other notable names to take the track include Cigar, John Henry, Manila, Perrault, Estrapade, Steinlein, Tight Spot and Paradise Creek.

In addition to the Arlington Million, the track is home to two other Grade I races: the Beverly D. Stakes and the Secretariat Stakes.

The Secretariat Stakes first started in 1974 after the Arlington Invitational was run the previous year, to bring U.S. Triple Crown Winner Secretariat to Chicago. This one mile and three-sixteenths turf race has $500,000 in guaranteed prize money and is open to three-year-old thoroughbreds.

The Beverly D, part of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series, is a turf race for fillies and mares over three years old. It’s named after Beverly D. Duchossois, whose husband, Richard, has been the chairman of Arlington Park since 1983.

Churchill Downs Incorporated bought the track in 2000, and in 2002, Arlington hosted the first-ever Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships in the Midwest.

In addition to the three annual Grade I races, there are plenty of awesome events going on in 2018. Racing generally runs from Friday through Sunday, but there are a few added Thursdays and Mondays throughout the year on holidays.

Every Friday, the park hosts Miller Lite Party in the Park, complete with $3 beers and food, $3 vouchers, outdoor games and a pool party. Saturdays are the Miller Lite Concert Series, with music from The Ron Burgundys, June’s Got the Cash, 1976 and so many more. Sundays are family days, and food and drink specials, pony rides, a petting zoo, jockey goggle giveaway and plenty of games and activities will be provided for the entire family.

Themed days include College Day (May 25), Mascot Day (June 10), Country Night (June 29), Horses and Hounds (July 28), Dino Day (Aug. 26) and Luck of the Irish (Sept. 15). For sports fans, Arlington also hosts Chicago Bears Day (July 15), White Sox Day (July 22), and Chicago Wolves Day (Aug. 25).

General admission is $10 at the gate, $18 for premium events and $8 for value Thursdays. Firework night is $22, while the Arlington Million is $30 per person. Discounts are given for tickets purchased in advance. Reserved seating starts at $8 and goes up to $45 for premium events and $50 on firework nights. Reserved tables are also available and range from $19-$65, but do not include general admission.

There are plenty of places to watch the action from around the park, with fine dining at the Governor’s Room, Turf Club, and International Skyline Lounge, as well as more casual settings at the party patio, Miller Lite Deck and Park Pavilion.

All you need is a hat and good company (and maybe a little bit of cash to place on your favorite).

Hawthorne Race Course
3501 S Laramie Ave.
Cicero

Owned and operated for more than 100 years by the Carey family, this fifth-generation racecourse is a haven for horse-lovers.

After being opened in 1891, Thomas Carey bought the Hawthorne Race Course in 1909, but had trouble opening the track due to horse racing being banned in Chicago. It wasn’t until 1922 that thoroughbred horses began racing again.

After the Maywood and Balmoral Parks both closed several years ago, Hawthorne added on harness horse racing and now is the only park that races both harness horses and thoroughbreds. Doing both requires quite a bit of a work.

“It’s really fun and it keep everyone busy,” says Jim Miller, director of publicity and racing analyst. “We have about 11,000 tons of dirt that we have to remove from the track to get ready for a harness meet, a conversion that takes around 72 hours to do.”

There are races every weekend of the season at Hawthorne, running from Thursday to Sunday from May through September with fewer racing days in the fall, spring and winter.

Hawthorne’s marquee race, the Gold Cup, was founded in 1928 and is held every fall over Thanksgiving weekend. The race draws the top horses across the country, many of which have gone on to win “Horse of the Year.” One of the most notable horses to ever come through Hawthorne was Black Tie Affair, who was stabled at the track and won “Horse of the Year” in 1991 after winning the Gold Cup in 1990. Dee Poulos, the wife of Black Tie Affair’s trainer, the late Dee Poulos, still trains horses at Hawthorne.

Since the track is year-round, there are several different indoor options to watch the races during the summer heat and harsh winters. The first floor boasts a posh sports bar, with 100 televisions and food and bar service, the Gold Cup Dining Room, which is up a level, has full dining service, and weather pending, the party patio, which is set up outdoors, has patio furniture, TVs and food and drinks. General admission to the park is just $2, and group packages are available.

Some special events this year include Americana Nights around the fourth of July with food trucks, craft beer specials, live music and retired racehorses for kids to pet. The Night of Champions, held the third week of September, is also one of the biggest events of the year, with over a million dollars in purses paid out. The Kentucky Derby is also a popular weekend at the track for gambling purposes.

“It’s inexpensive, enjoyable fun,” Miller says, “You can bring the family, enjoy an afternoon or evening of racing and have the chance to make money too.”