Sunday, July 3, 2011

Arlington Park - Que Hermoso!

--Andy Belfiore

  What do TDNers like to do when we are on vacation? You can be sure, if we can work it out, any travel plans will include a trip to the nearest racetrack. I was out in Chicago last week, and two of my four days in the Windy City were spent at beautiful Arlington Park.

   My adventure was off to a rough start--my flight from Newark was cancelled. Never a good feeling when you get up at the crack of dawn (or 7 a.m., which is crazy early for me), and you have four missed calls between 3 and 4 a.m. from some 800 number you don’t recognize. Guess I should have left the ringer on.

   After sitting on hold with American Airlines for 20 minutes, I used my secret weapon for getting immediate customer service from the airlines--para espanol, oprima numero dos. Yup--just use the Spanish-speaking alternative, and you will get someone on the other line “en un instante.” Do I speak Spanish? Not really. I can tell someone to take another turn in the shedrow or fix the horse’s blanket, but that’s about it. But the customer service people all speak English. They might be miffed that you have found away around the interminable wait time, but they have to help you.

   My agent, once she got over my duplicity, explained that there were no other flights out of Newark that day, and alternate plans involved driving to LaGuardia or JFK, and getting in too late to make the races that afternoon. Not acceptable! After much prodding from me (she must have wanted to “mata me” {kill me}), she found a non-stop from Philly to O’Hare that got in at 1:30 p.m., and I was on my way. (God bless my unbelievably generous friend Diane who agreed to drive me the 90 miles--each way--to Philly Airport. She is now in my will.)

   The plane landed early, and Arlington is an easy drive from O’Hare, so I was at the track by 2 p.m. It was my first visit to the track (and to the city, even though my email address is Chicagopro...but that’s a story for another time...) I have to say I was impressed. I have heard nothing but good things about Arlington, and the praise proved well-earned.

   Dave Zenner, who does a great job as the head of Arlington’s communications department, had tickets waiting at will call. And, as busy as he was, he could not have made me feel more welcome. There was a table reserved in the Million Room, a lovely spot overlooking the track. It is the more formal choice for dining at Arlington, but I would recommend it. The prices in the food court caused a bit of sticker shock, but the menu at the Million Room was reasonable. Then again, at Arlington, you can just pack your lunch and enjoy it in the park-like setting--who doesn’t love a picnic?

   Dave was the rule rather than the exception at Arlington. From the guy in the parking lot (free parking), to the people at admissions (it costs $8 to get in, which seemed a bit high, but there were plenty of people filling the apron) to the tellers and the waiter in the restaurant, everyone had that Midwestern charm you read about. They get it at Arlington--excellent customer service is mandatory, or people just won’t come back. And you don’t even have to pretend you speak Spanish!

   The track itself is very pretty. The paddock is all flowers and grass and trees, and the grandstand is bright and clean and really well maintained. It’s small enough that there is a ton of energy in the place with just a few thousand in attendance, and the crowds were more than respectable both days I was there, drawn by the ridiculously beautiful weather and by cards that, while not exactly championship caliber, provided full fields and solid betting opportunities.

   It’s not your typical racetrack bunch, either--I was there on a Sunday and a Wednesday, and saw as many families and groups of 20-somethings as your veteran handicappers. I ran into one young woman pushing a double baby carriage--the kids couldn’t have been yearlings yet. “Got to get them started early,” she said with a grin.

   Kudos, too, to the information available. Jessica Pacheco works the paddock, and goes over the field in every race. She saved me betting on a loser when she pointed out that it had worked only once since a race a month earlier. And John Dooley, high up in the booth, does an exemplary job both in calling the action and in the added information he provides before and after the race. I was going to get up to place a bet until he let me know, two minutes to post, that the horse I liked was the 4-5 favorite. I didn’t bother--and the horse didn’t win. Nice!

   There were a couple of minor negatives. The food court prices, as mentioned, seemed a tad steep. Ten bucks for a slice of pizza and a bottle of water? And there were no TVs in the food court area, so you couldn’t keep track of the odds while you ate. Believe me, for $10, I was going to skip betting a race rather than leaving a crumb of that arguably ordinary slice behind.

   But that’s just nitpicking, really. There is a photo hanging at Arlington of the devastation caused by the fire that destroyed the grandstand back in 1985. Just 25 days later, the track was back in business, hosting the “Miracle Million,” with 35,000 fans tucked into tents and temporary bleachers. They rebuilt and came back strong and, more than a quarter of a century later (yea, it’s been that long!!), they are still a great example of what the racetrack experience should be all about. Muchas gracias, Arlington!

No comments: