By Noel Michaels
Arlington Racecourse has a successful history of being able to rise from the ashes – literally. So perhaps none of aus should be surprised that the beautiful race track in the suburbs of Chicago has managed to pull off what had looked so improbable a few weeks ago to salvage a significant part of its 2020 race meet.
Arlington’s race meet will open Thursday (July 23) for a 30-day racing season lasting the rest of the summer, until Sept. 26. The track will be open Thursdays through Saturdays with a daily 2 p.m. CT first post. The races will run without spectators for the first portion of the meet at least, but track officials are hopeful that some fans will be permitted at some point during the season, based on the re-opening phase guidelines set by Illinois’ coronavirus plan.
Arlington’s opening follows some very tense moments this spring when it appeared summertime racing in the Chicagoland area was all but dead in 2020, and perhaps beyond.
The racetrack and horsemen were without a contract for 2020-21, negotiating deadlines were missed, and then the coronavirus pandemic hit Illinois hard around the time of Arlington’s originally-scheduled opening the first weekend in May. Arlington relies much more on live on-track crowds and revenues than almost any other track, counting more on admissions, seats, group sales, and food and beverage income than on betting handle to make the economics of its business model work. Without spectators, no one was in much of a hurry to rescue Arlington’s season.
Thankfully, the worst of the coronavirus pandemic has passed in Illinois (for now), and the racetrack and horsemen were able to make a deal to pave the way for a late-summer 2020 meet. Gone this year will be all stakes racing – including Arlington Million Day – as all purse money gets diverted to sustaining daily purses in the neighborhood Arlington is accustomed to.
Arlington has been the Larry Rivelli and Jose Valdivia show the last few years, but big changes are in store this season with Valdivia having relocated his family to southern California and Jareth Loveberry set to move his tack from Canterbury to Arlington to ride first call for Rivelli.
Loveberry walks into a dream situation at Arlington. Currently the sixth-leading rider at Canterbury, Loveberry will rack up the wins riding for the Rivelli stable, which accounts for nearly one-sixth of all horses on the grounds and sends out low-odds favorite after low-odds favorite. For example, Valdivia won 112 races at the 2018 Arlington meet and 100 races last year. Valdivia had other business too, beyond just Rivelli, so it remains to be seen if Loveberry will be able to approach Valdivia’s 25 percent win rate and 56 percent in the money (ITM).
The up-and-comer in the Arlington jock’s room the last two years has been the talented Mitchell Murrell, who seems poised to ascend to the Arlington throne this season. Murrell just narrowly missed winning the Fair Grounds riding title this past winter by one win. He came within six wins of catching Valdivia last year with 94 victories.
The rest of the Arlington jockey colony is made up of solid veteran journeymen and Chicago regulars such as Chris Emigh and Julio Felix, who tied for third last season with 48 wins, Carlos Marquez Jr. (45 wins), Jose Lopez (44 wins), and Edgar Perez (25 wins). Sophie Doyle enjoyed a breakout season at Arlington in 2018 and won 34 races last season, mainly in turf races, good for seventh in the standings. Newcomer Juan Carlos Ulloa was 25 races at AP in 2019, which was astonishing because he rode mostly long shots and his average winner was in the $20 range.
The dominating barn on the circuit, as mentioned, is that of Larry Rivelli, who won a startling 78 races at Arlington in 2019 for 36 percent wins and 62 percent ITM. To put that in perspective, second-leading trainer, veteran Chris Block, one of Arlington’s all-time winningest trainers, won 24 races. Rivelli rolls out fast 2-year-old throughout the meet, wins with maidens and first starters, and trains winner after winner in all kinds of races, especially short sprints with early speed horses who attempt to go wire-to-wire.
Beyond Rivelli and Block, there are literally dozens on Chicago-based operations, all or part of the year, chomping at the bit for the Arlington season to start, including Michael Reavis (22 wins and a 30 percent win rate in 2019), Steve Manley (20 wins), Frank Kirby (18 wins), Wayne Catalano (16 wins), Ingrid Mason (16 wins), Brian Williamson (16 wins), and Christopher Davis (16 wins).
Main track racing at Arlington is conducted on a synthetic Polytrack surface, which is becoming unique since most other synthetic tracks have switched to Tapeta. Inside posts are generally good on Arlington’s main track, and the early lead is generally no advantage, unless it’s a short sprint race and you happen to see a Rivelli trainee get to the lead and wave goodbye. Otherwise closers have a great chance on Arlington’s Polytrack at races 6 furlongs and beyond.
One hallmark of Polytrack racetracks is that they tend to tighten up and speed up under wet conditions – similar to sand on the beach, which is easier to run on when it’s wet. Speed horses have their best chances on rainy days, but note that no mention of track condition is made in the past performances for all-weather tracks, so you’ll need to keep wet track records for yourself.
Considered by many to be one of the best turf courses in North America, Arlington’s course is more than 140 feet wide in the stretch.
In a sample size of 1,388 turf races run over a five-year period, stalkers and closers generally do better in Arlington than horses on or close to the pace. Speed horses, leaders, and pace pressures won a total 39 percent of Arlington’s grass route races, while stalking horses coming from at least a few lengths off the pace and closers accounted for 61 percent of the victories in turf routes.
Because of the immense width of the Arlington turf course, the track crew is able to move around the inner rail quite a bit throughout the season so horses can continually run on fresh turf. When turf rails are moved to the outer half of the course, from lane 4 (out 49 feet), or Million Lane 5 (out 62 feet), the win percentages tend to remain pretty consistent as compared to races run on or close to the hedge.
From a sample size of 565 races run on the outer half of the course, early speed horses won at a 22 percent clip, and pace pressers won 16 percent, but it was the horses further back off the pace with by far the most success, with stalkers winning 30 percent of the races and closers winning 32 percent of the time.
Better late than never. That’s the motto for Arlington in 2020. The Million and other stakes races will return in 2021, but for now, we are left with solid three-day-a-week racing and wagering headlined by some of the summer’s best turf racing. Enjoy, and best of luck!
Note: US Racing correspondent Noel Michaels has been a racing analyst for Arlington Park’s broadcast teams since 2018.
Noel Michaels has been involved in many aspects of thoroughbred racing for more than two decades, as a Breeders’ Cup-winning owner and as a writer, author, handicapper, editor, manager and promoter of the sport for a wide range of companies including Daily Racing Form and Nassau County Off-Track Betting.
He also is regarded as the leading source of news and information for handicapping tournaments and the author of the “Handicapping Contest Handbook: A Horseplayer’s Guide to Handicapping Tournaments”, which made his name virtually synonymous with the increasingly-popular tournament scene.
In addition to contributing to US Racing, he is also an analyst on the Arlington Park broadcast team.