Electricians Rich Phillips, left, and Roger Jameson install light fixtures to prepare for opening day Friday at Arlington Park.
Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer
As spring battled winter this week, Arlington Park officials were watching.
And desperately cheering on spring.
"We'll be fine, either way," said track spokesman David Zenner. "We have plenty of inside space."
Playing hooky for Arlington Park's opening day is a popular tradition in the suburbs. Today thousands leave early or just plain ditch work in favor of sipping Mint Juleps and watching horses circle the track.
However, temperatures dipped into the 30s early this week, and frost was even spotted on newly planted flowers at the park. Although track officials won't comment on attendance numbers, that figure varies by thousands based on the weather.
This afternoon, severe thunderstorms, large hail and damaging winds are all possible. Breezy rain is likely on Saturday.
"There's not much we can do," Zenner said. "We may relocate some of the private parties inside."
While rain may affect the size of the crowd in the stands, it won't affect the number of horses on the track.
Last year Arlington installed an $11 million Polytrack, a blend of sand and rubber-coated wax particles atop a sophisticated drainage system. The bad news is that the thundering sound of the horses rounding the track is muted compared to the dirt surface. The good news is the track's new drainage system is built for rain so fewer horses will scratch if the weather turns foul.
But as track officials know, there's only so much they can control on Opening Day, and weather is certainly not one of those things. Gates open the 81st season at Arlington Park at 9:30 a.m. today, and the first live race will be at 2:30 p.m.
Here's what's new, interesting or just plain necessary information to bring with you to the 320-acre track:
• Arlington Cash Cards -- bettors can get plastic cash cards and add any value to wager via an account.
• The track will offer live music on Fridays with the return of the "Miller Lite Party in the Park" at 2:30 p.m. Local radio personalities will make appearances at the popular event, known as "a happy hour with horses running through it."
• "Bonny the Bugler," aka Aurora native Bonny Brown, relocated to Texas over the winter. Bonny was the nation's first female bugler. In 2003, she beat out a field of 18 to replace legendary Joe Kelly as the track's bugler. Tryouts for her job will be on Thursday after the last race. Judges will be track officials.
• Admission is up a buck to $7 from $6. Visitors can get that buck back by buying tickets through the track's Web site. General admission parking is still free.
• Speaking of the track's Web site, it's all new. It's much easier to find out now what's going on. New sections will debut on the site this season, including social networking links, widgets, mobile features, and the ability for visitors to share handicapping information and wagering tips. Check it out at www.arlingtonpark.com.
• Because of the state law, the track has a new smoking policy. Smoking is prohibited indoors at the track, including tented areas, balconies and all seating areas underneath the cantilever roof. Smoking is permitted outdoors 15 feet from entrances.
• Arlington Park will attempt to set the world record for the "Largest Derby Party" on Saturday. The first 4,000 guests will receive a Kentucky Derby glass, and restaurants will also feature the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, the mint julep.
• Like most sporting arenas, the most popular food choices at the track are the obvious ones -- hot dogs, burgers and ice cream. However, the track does have signature items including the taco salad, Arlington Dog (it's a foot long), Cobey's Popcorn (caramel, cheddar and butter popcorn). In the Million Room, give the Shrimp and Crab Louie Salad a try.
• One thing that hasn't changed: no slots. And thanks to a stall in the legislature, it looks like the track won't get them this season.
• This year, the Arlington Million is Aug. 9. Arlington will wrap up its 96-day season on Sept. 21.
If you go
Dates: May 2-Sept. 21
Location: Euclid Avenue and Wilke Road in Arlington Heights
Gates open: 10:15 a.m. Friday; 9:30 a.m. Saturday; 11:15 a.m. most other days
Post times: First post is at 1:20 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays; 1 p.m. weekends and holidays. Post time on Fridays is 2:30 p.m.
Admission: $7 general admission ($6 if purchased in advance online)
Parking: Free; $5 for preferred parking; $10 valet
Wagering Format: Daily doubles every race; exactas every race; trifectas and superfectas every race that qualifies on field size; high-5 on the last race daily; pick 6 on the last six races of each race card; pick 3 wagers every race; pick 4 on races 2-5 and final four races
Television: All races except the Arlington Million are on HRTV -- available locally on Comcast Cable Digital Sports Tier channel 407 and on DISH Network channel 405
What I can bring: Coolers are allowed in the park area and outside on the apron level, track side only. No coolers allowed inside the building. There is a limit of one 50-quart cooler per adult, including in the Park Pavilion. Liquids and nonalcoholic beverages will be allowed only in their original sealed plastic container. All coolers and bags will be inspected.
Prohibited items include: balloons, glass containers, alcohol, commercially packaged foods (you can pack your own sandwich though)
Source: Arlington Park