Since the brisk October morning it opened almost a century ago, Arlington International Racecourse in Arlington Heights has been called one of the most beautiful racetracks in the United States and the world, most recently by Architectural Digest.
[ ‘This is such a grand facility.’ As historic Arlington Park crosses the finish line, horse racing workers wonder how they’ll fill the void ]
Arlington closed its gates on Sept. 25, 2021. The Bears finalized a deal to buy the site in February 2023, a move that takes the team a step closer toward leaving their longtime home at Soldier Field, and secured permission to begin interior demolition of the grandstand.
Here’s a look back at the highs — and lows — of the historic thoroughbred turf course.
[ Chicago Bears and Arlington Heights: What to know about the possible stadium move from Soldier Field ]
Ground is broken in Arlington Heights at the site of the new horse racing track, then known as Arlington Park, which was expected to cost $2 million to complete.
The first steel beam of the original park is erected.
Though still under construction, the track opens for its first season of business. More than 20,000 fans brave the cold weather to celebrate the event in high style. Jockey Joe Bollero guides Luxembourg to victory in the first-ever race at Arlington.
“And the unanimous verdict of those in the crowd was that Arlington Park, when complete and in operation at a time of the year when the thoroughbred sport is more seasonable, will be unsurpassed by any track. Nothing like the Arlington Park layout has ever been presented to Chicago turf followers.”
— Chicago Tribune, Oct. 14, 1927
A completely electric totalizer — the first of its kind — is installed at Arlington. The $250,000 machine takes wagers and reports the volume of betting in the win, place and show pools and the odds against each horse. A nest of 24 electric bulbs is used to form the numbers from zero to nine.
“The machine eliminates the approximate odds boards.”
— H.L. Straus, American Totalizer president
Arlington runs turf races for the first time in Illinois history.
Stockholders approve sale of Arlington to a new board of directors including Benjamin F. Linheimer, managing director of Washington Park Race Track. Lindheimer operated both parks until his death in 1960.
An all-time record crowd of 50,638 visits Arlington.
Jockey Eddie Arcaro becomes the first American rider to record 3,000 wins after scoring three victories that day at Arlington.
Nashua wins his only Arlington Park race, taking the Arlington Classic.
Jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. records his first victory in the U.S. as he wins aboard Fred Hooper’s filly Teachers Art.
Lindheimer’s daughter and Chicago Thoroughbred president, Marjorie L. Everett, sells Arlington to Gulf & Western Industries.
Dr. Fager, carrying 134 pounds, including jockey Braulio Baeza, sets the world record for 1 mile on the dirt at Arlington Park. The Doctor’s time: 1:32 1/5.
Secretariat makes his only appearance at Arlington. Fresh off his Triple Crown victories, “Big Red” destroys his field in the Arlington Invitational.
“It was not so much that he won by nine lengths and within 1-5 of a second of Damascus’ track record. It was the way he won: Effortlessly.”
— Neil Milbert, Chicago Tribune, July 1, 1973
The first Sunday racing program in Illinois history is held at Arlington.
Gov. James Thompson signs a bill into law allowing wagering on out-of-state races. Arlington becomes the first Illinois track to use the new bill when it simulcasts the Travelers Stakes late that summer.
“The new bill will permit us to transmit our races of national interest, like the Arlington Million, to tracks outside the state for betting purposes at those sites.”
— Joseph Joyce, Arlington president
Arlington hosts the world’s first million dollar race: The Arlington Million. The result of that race is immortalized in bronze at the top of the Paddock, where the “Against All Odds” statue of jockey Bill Shoemaker riding John Henry to a thrilling come-from-behind victory over 40-1 long shot The Bart celebrates Thoroughbred racing’s inaugural million dollar race.
“He overcame everything. He had the worst post position (the outside) and this (soft) turf wasn’t his type of racetrack. But I never saw him run a better race.”
— Ron McAnally, John Henry’s trainer
Earlie Fires sets the single-day riding record at Arlington when he rides seven of eight winners. Of the one loss he says, “Turning for home I thought I’d win that one, but I guess she has a habit of losing (23 straight times).” He repeats his own feat in 1987.
Arlington is sold to a four-man group headed by Richard L. Duchossois.
“The most important point of this sale is that it returns Arlington Park to Illinois ownership. We have a lot of plans for the future. We think we can bring Arlington back to its past glory.”
— Joseph Joyce, partner in Arlington purchase
Almost 40,000 fans watch as John Henry becomes the only horse to win the Arlington Million twice. He missed the 1982 race due to injuries and took second in the 1983 race in a photo-finish.
An early morning fire in the adjacent Post and Paddock Club leads to greater tragedy when the fire spreads and destroys the main grandstand. No one is injured.
More than 35,000 fans crowd temporary tents and bleachers to watch the “Miracle Million,” as Great Britain’s Teleprompter defeats Greinton by less than a length. The Arlington team is recognized by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association with an Eclipse Award, the first ever awarded to a racetrack, less than a month following a devastating fire.
Duchossois assumes full control of Arlington after buying out partners Joseph Joyce, Sheldon Robbins and Ralph Ross.
“I want the freedom to make the decisions, to call all the shots myself. I’m not looking for any new investors at this time.”
— Richard Duchossois, Arlington owner
With fans drinking a champagne toast, Duchossois is joined by Gov. Thompson, Arlington Heights Mayor James Ryan and a host of union and labor officials in groundbreaking ceremonies for the new Arlington International Racecourse. Construction closes the track during the 1988 season.
“The celebration will be when the people see the new Arlington Park. Until then, all the promises don’t mean anything.”
— Richard Duchossois, Arlington owner
Mill Native makes history in winning the Arlington Million at Woodbine Race Course in Toronto, as construction of the new Arlington is underway. It’s the first major stakes race to be transferred to another country.
Reigning Horse of the Year Cigar wins his 16th consecutive race, at Arlington, to tie Citation’s modern day record.
Duchossois closes Arlington to protest riverboat gambling in the state.
Churchill Downs Incorporated buys Arlington for a reported $71 million.
Hosts a sold-out crowd of 46,118 for the 2002 Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships — the first ever held in the Midwest.
Synthetic race track installed.
More than 41,000 people witness an emotional homecoming performance by “American Idol” finalist and Mount Prospect resident Lee DeWyze at Arlington.
Arlington returns to its former name, Arlington International Racecourse, which it was known as from 1989 to 2000.
Churchill Downs becomes the majority owner of Rivers Casino.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs the Illinois Gaming Act into law, looking to bring in an additional $350 million in annual state revenue, and opening the door to sports wagering and other growth opportunities for gambling operators. Under the law, Churchill Downs has the right to add up to 1,200 casino gaming positions, such as slot machines, at Arlington.
Churchill Downs plans to add casino gambling to Arlington, but is considering moving the thoroughbred racetrack. The Louisville, Ky.-based casino and racetrack owner says it plans to apply for a sports betting license for the racetrack under Illinois’ new gambling expansion law. But the requirement that Arlington would have to pay additional taxes on gaming revenues to fund horse racing purses makes a casino there “financially untenable,” CEO Bill Carstanjen says in a news release.
Churchill Downs Inc., the Louisville-based company that owns Arlington Park, the state’s flagship racetrack, announces it is putting the Arlington Heights landmark up for sale.
The decision is not a surprise. Churchill Downs Inc., the Louisville-based company that owns the track, drew harsh criticism from the Illinois Racing Board in September 2019 when they declined to guarantee that they would hold racing dates beyond 2021.
The park opens for its likely last season.
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Chicago Bears team President and CEO Ted Phillips announces on Twitter the team recently submitted a bid to purchase the property at Arlington.
[ The Chicago Bears have called Soldier Field home since 1971 — but they have flirted with leaving the downtown stadium several times since ]
An estimated 10,000 people attend Arlington’s final day of the 2021 season, possibly placing their last bets ever at the racetrack. The 326-acre property is for sale.
Phillips says in a statement that finalizing an agreement to purchase Arlington is “the critical next step in continuing our exploration of the property and its potential.” Churchill Downs announces the sale price is $197.2 million and says it anticipates closing the sale in late 2022 or early 2023.
The Bears purchase the Arlington site.
Arlington Heights issues permits for interior demolition of the grandstand, office and jockey building at the racetrack.
Sources: Chicago Tribune archives and reporting; Arlington Park; Encyclopedia of Chicago
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