At 10:30 a.m. on a Thursday, the rear car of a Metra train is nearly full as it rattles northwest out of Chicago and through the city’s Rockwellian suburbs. In most cities, coffee would be the beverage of choice for passengers at this hour, but this is America’s foremost drinking town, a place where a Cubs ticket trumps actual supervisory permission to blow off work on a weekday and get blitzed in the bleachers. Instead, twentysomethings in khakis and sundresses drink Miller tallboys and Bud Strawbeeritas, their tickets punched—European-style, by a conductor—for Arlington International Racecourse.
The train stops in back of the track, revealing a gleaming white venue. The clubhouse entrance gives the appearance of a five-star hotel, its valets duded up to the nines. Upon paying admission, one peers out at the paddock, so pristine as to raise suspicion of whether a hoof has ever trampled on its grounds. Through the doors, the floors sparkle, with nary a torn-up ticket upon them.
And then there’s the roof. An architectural marvel, Arlington’s cantilevered shelter affords grandstand ticketholders a view unobstructed by beams and poles. Inside, automated tote machines far outnumber tellers in the flesh. All told, the spaceship-like facility appears transported from the future; you have expect the horses to be mechanical, and ridden by holograms instead of tiny humans.
It wasn’t always this way. The track actually opened in 1927, and became the first racecourse to offer a Thoroughbred race - the Arlington Million - with a million-dollar purse. But a mysterious fire burnt the original structure to the ground in 1985 (miraculously, the Million was still run 25 days later, with 35,000 fans crowding into temporary bleachers). Securing what he thought would be longstanding concessions from the state legislature, the track’s steely owner, Richard Duchossois, spared no expense in rebuilding the six-story facility, which reopened in all its glory in 1989.
Illinois, however, has never been known for its political forthrightness, and after years of threatening to do so, Duchossois turned off Arlington’s lights for two years in the late 1990s, claiming he couldn’t compete unless he was awarded a cut of cannibalizing casino revenue. He eventually got his wish, and reopened the track in 2000 - the year in which he completed a merger with Churchill Downs Inc.
As the “international” in its name accurately attests to, Arlington is unique among American racetracks in its devotion to high-stakes turf racing. (That its main track is sticking with Polytrack while others revert to dirt will only accentuate this grass-rooted nature.) And with three Grade 1s - the Million, the Beverly D., and the Secretariat Stakes - on the card, there’s no greater day of turf racing in the United States than mid-August’s International Festival of Racing (held this year on Aug. 11), otherwise known as Million Day, when Million Teas (Jim Beam, raspberry liqueur, and freshly squeezed lemonade) and aluminum bottles of Miller Lite (the unofficial official drink of Arlington) slake bettors thirst at trackside bars like the Terrace Cafe and Mr. D’s.
Earlier in the meet, Million Preview Day, held in July, brings four Grade 3s to the turf, where the most prominent local horseman worth betting on is Wayne Catalano, an ex-jockey who’s gone on to become the second-winningest trainer in Arlington history. Offering four days of racing per week, while Sundays are Family Day, with pony rides and the like. Fridays and Saturdays cater to a younger crowd, putting the focus on live music and craft beer with bands like the fabulously named the Ron Burgundys and Wunderbrass.
Never bet before? At Arlington, that’s hardly cause for anxiety, as the track offers an “Arlington University” tutorial which familiarizes novice gamblers with the sport’s ins and outs. Among the exotic wagers that students will learn about is the Super High Five, which promises a life-changing payout to anyone who can correctly pick the first five finishers in order in a select race.
Where to Drink
Rumor has it that the Windy City’s nickname comes not from the gusts off Lake Michigan, but for how much it blows when you have to do something other than drink. Chicago’s got its sophisticated side, to be sure, but its glut of lively “bar-bars” stands virtually unrivaled for metropolises of its size.
A down and dirty vibe can be found at the Hideout, only with live music from both local and touring indie-rock bands. Schubas and the Empty Bottle also offering stellar bookings and cheap Old Style, and music fans seeking a roomier experience with better-known bands can head to the Riviera or the Vic Theatre, the latter of which is about as ornate a 1,400-person venue as you’ll find in America.
On the blue and brainy end of the dive bar spectrum is the stiff-pouring Old Town Ale House, featuring a wall crammed with illustrated depictions of celebrities and politicians committing unspeakably lewd acts. For those seeking to ride out a hangover with some really righteous pints, Logan Square’s Revolution Brewing, featured in the critically acclaimed indie flick Drinking Buddies, has become a neighborhood mainstay. In Lincoln Park, the aptly named The Derby offers regular shuttles to Arlington International on race days. And across the street from the track, Jimmy D’s is a solid sports bar, where horsemen and racing fans of all strata gather to decompress over beer-battered pickles and pints of Miller Lite.
Where to Eat and Sleep
Chicago can go farm-to-table with the trendiest of cities, with restaurants like Homestead on the Roof driving that point home deliciously. But the Windy City is known for its deep-dish pizza, topping-heavy hot dogs, and Italian beef sandwiches, with Lou Malnati’s, Wiener’s Circle and Johnnie’s Beef offering up perhaps the most satisfying renditions of each dish. There’s a Johnnie’s just down the street from Arlington International, while within the track’s confines, the Cowboy Grille, which offers a perfect view of the paddock, does a more than passable version of the veggie-enhanced carnivore’s delight. For dinner, Ditka’s, the legendary Bears’ coach’s joint located in the OTB on the racetrack’s grounds, warms customers up for juicy steaks with buttery cornbread cakes and Manhattans before each meal.
If you’re looking to rest your head near the track, Arlington has a partnership with a comfortable Holiday Inn Express and Suites that will get race fans to and from - as well as into - the track for $119 per night. And those looking for quintessential inner-city accommodations can do no better than the historic Palmer House Hilton, located near Millennium Park and the Art Institute.
If you’re staying near the track and relying on public transportation or taxis, it’s smart to resist the urge to fly Southwest, which operates exclusively out of Midway. Nothing against Midway, but any savings accrued by flying America’s most overrated budget carrier will be cancelled out by what it costs to get to the faraway terminal. O’Hare, on the other hand, is but 15 minutes away.