By Noel Michaels
Arlington Racecourse in the suburbs of Chicago has begun what’s likely to be the track’s final season, which would mark the end of this landmark spot in racing since its opening in 1927.
The 2021 season began April 20 and runs until Sept. 30. After that, the end since owner Churchill Downs Inc. announced that the track is for sale for real estate development.
Arlington is famous for pulling off miracles before, but this situation appears too much to overcome The track, which hosted the world’s first $1 million horse race – the 1981 Arlington Million – burned down on July 31, 1985, only to run what was dubbed ‘The Miracle Million’ in front of a temporary grandstand less than four weeks later on August 25, 1985.
The existing Arlington facility opened in 1989 and has since been widely regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful racetracks. Arlington is one of a handful of tracks that still draws big on-track crowds daily, but that does not appear to be enough to save it.
The eventual buyer is highly unlikely to purchase the property for horse racing purposes and keep the track standing beyond the 2021 season.
Hopefully, you will have a chance to experience and enjoy the Arlington meet his season. Here are some tips and trends to help handicappers enjoy a successful meet:
Main track racing at Arlington is conducted on a synthetic Polytrack surface, which is becoming unique since most other synthetic tracks have switched to the Tapita surface. Inside posts on Arlington’s main track are good, but the early lead is generally no advantage unless it is a short sprint, and you happen to see a Larry Rivelli trainee get to the lead and wave goodbye to the field. Larry Rivelli is the perennial leading trainer at Arlington and has arrived for the 2021 meet with another large stable. When you do feel brave enough to go against the Rivelli-trained horses, which are generally favored early speedsters, take note that late-runners do have a solid chance to close 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, like 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 recent sample size of 1,388 turf races run over a five-year period, stalkers and closers generally do better in Arlington turf races than horses on or close to the pace in routes. Speed horses, leaders, and pace pressures won a total 39% of Arlington’s grass route races, while stalking horses coming from at least a few lengths off the pace and closers accounted for 61% of the victories in turf routes.
Because of the immense width of the Arlington turf course, the track crew can 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, out to lane 4 (out 49 feet), or “Million” lane 5 (out 62 feet), the win percentages tend to remain consistent 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% clip, and pace pressers won 16%, but it was the horses further back off the pace with by far the most success, with stalkers winning 30% of the races and closers winning 32% percent of the time.
As mentioned, Arlington has been the Larry Rivelli show for many years and this should continue. This was already apparent on opening weekend when Rivelli started 10 runners the first two days and won four times. By comparison, no other trainer started more than six horses opening weekend, and no one else won more than two races. The Rivelli stable accounts for nearly one-sixth of all horses on the grounds and often sends out low-odds favorite after low-odds favorite.
As Rivelli goes, so does his first-string rider, Jareth Loveberry, who moved his tack from Canterbury to Arlington to ride for Rivelli beginning last season. Loveberry rode all four Rivelli winners and leads all jockeys after the first weekend with four wins from 14 mounts.
The rest of the jockey colony is made up of solid veteran journeymen and Chicago regulars such as Chris Emigh, Julio Felix, Carlos Marquez Jr., Jose Lopez, and Edgar Perez. Declan Carroll is also in the mix in 2021. Of this group, expect Emigh to emerge as the second-leading rider. Emigh rides for several of the other leading stables, including for trainers Chris Block and Brittany Vandenberg.
Rivelli won 78 races (36% rate) in the last full season at Arlington in 2019. To put that in perspective, second-leading trainer Block won 24 races. Beyond Rivelli, Vandenberg, and Block, there are literally dozens of Chicago-based operations, all or part of the year, more than ready for the Arlington season. This includes Michael Reavis, Steve Manley, Frank Kirby, Wayne Catalano, Ingrid Mason, Brian Williamson, and Christopher Davis.
Good luck for the 2021 Arlington season. You may not get another chance to enjoy racing and wagering – and visiting – this gem of American racing.
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.