Mornings at Arlington International Racecourse are quiet, aside from the rumble of galloping horses during training most mornings between 6 and 10 a.m.
Thoroughbred horse jockey Chris Emigh says those early hours are essential.
“Every morning you’re out here working horses, trying to figure the horses out, get them better, keep them in shape,” he said. “Then usually the crowd just comes and sees the end result. But there are months and months, sometimes years, of work to get to that point for that one race.”
Emigh is no stranger to horse races. He’s won more than 1,000 of his roughly 4,000 career wins at Arlington Park since moving to the racecourse in 1996, becoming the park’s third all-time leading rider.
He was introduced to the sport when his middle school bus driver suggested he and his twin brother, Aaron, give it a try.
“The high speed, the adrenaline rush … I always tell everyone it’s better than a real job,” he said. “There’s nothing like it in the world.”
Another familiar face at the racecourse is Larry Rivelli, who calls Arlington Park “home.”
A third-generation thoroughbred horse trainer, owner and breeder, Rivelli followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and uncle and has been Arlington Park’s lead trainer for nine years.
Rivelli says he trains 120 horses across the country; 80 of them are at Arlington Park.
“It’s kind of like an out-of-control wildfire,” he said, laughing.
The past 15 months of COVID-19 and an economic shutdown have been tough for Rivelli and Emigh.
For Rivelli, it’s been “less opportunities to run, less races to win, less money to make,” and Emigh says it’s a cheering crowd that makes “you feel like you made it.”
So after a shortened 2020 season without spectators until the near end, they say they’re both thrilled for visitors to return to Arlington Park.
The racecourse began its current season April 30 with limited capacity, social distancing guidelines and sanitation stations.
“It’s great to see people back here, in their shorts, their polo shirts,” said Arlington Park President Tony Petrillo.
Since Illinois’ full reopening June 11, vaccinated guests can enter without masks, and though Family Days and other live entertainment aren’t projected to return, Arlington Park’s capacity is set to increase from 4,500 to 8,000 visitors next month.
But with more guests comes a need for more workers, Petrillo said.
“That’s been our number-one challenge: finding people to come back on to increase and scale up our attendance,” he said, adding that Arlington Park was designed around the user experience and has been referred to as the Disneyland of racing many times.
“We’re just trying to find enough people to be able to service the business correctly and trying to meet the expectations of the service that people have when they come here and also the safety,” he says.
Reopening amid a pandemic isn’t the only challenge. Arlington Park is facing a murky future after its parent company, Churchill Downs Inc., listed the nearly 100-year-old racecourse for sale in February. Proposals for the 326-acre property are due June 15.
Arlington Heights plan commissioners have endorsed an overlay zone for the property’s potential redevelopment, the Daily Herald reported, prohibiting uses like adult businesses and car washes. The commission’s recommendations now head to the village board, which has the final vote on what can and cannot be built on the property. No date has been set for the vote.
But it’s Churchill Downs that has the final say when it comes to selecting a proposal.
“Hopefully Churchill will sell it to keep it a racetrack,” Rivelli said. “It’s just hard. We don’t know what they have in mind, what they have planned. It’d be a shame not to race here.”
Petrillo says he hopes visitors make the most of this season at Arlington Park, dubbed “The Final Turn.”
“We coined this as ‘The Final Turn’ to send the message to people to get out and come out and experience Arlington for one last time, or revisit memories that you may have of Arlington and create new memories,” he said.
For Emigh, a new memory will be his wedding at the racecourse next month. He and his fiancé, Brittany Vandenberg, met at Arlington Park and used to compete against each other. Now they own and train horses together.
“I just want to keep [Arlington Park] going,” Emigh said. “I have a home here, a nice horse farm. We love being here, racing all year. It’s a family orientated place. So we’re hoping to continue staying here instead of having to move away.”