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Arlington Park looking to shine in tough economy
By Sheila Ahern | Daily Herald Staff

Arlington Park camera towers stand ready for opening day Friday as the Chicago skyline of Chicago looms in the background.


Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Window washer Alejandro Uribe of Hoffman Estates walks precariously on the outside ledge of the upper level Tuesday, getting ready for Friday's opening day.


Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Arlington Park groundskeeper Joseph Bongiorno sprays down the viewing area as crews prepare for opening day Friday.


Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Groundskeeper Oscar Aguilar plants flowers around the infield scoring signs at Arlington Park in preparation for the new season.


Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

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Published: 4/30/2009 5:11 PM | Updated: 4/30/2009 7:07 PM

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Even "staycations" are too expensive for many people this summer - go to Wrigley Field or Great America and you start spending money just to get in a parking lot.

But at Arlington Park, a family of four can spend the day at the track for as little as $40 - and that includes a little betting money. The track, which opens Friday, is ramping up its Fourth of July fireworks show and adding bands and family events to attract people who can't afford a vacation or even a staycation this year.

Playing hooky for the track's opening day is a popular suburban tradition. Friday, thousands will leave early or just plain ditch work in favor of sipping mint juleps and watching horses circle the track.

When it comes to summer entertainment, people are looking at cost more than ever before, said Lisa Hadesman, an Illinois Bureau of Tourism spokeswoman. State parks as well as top spots like Navy Pier and Millennium Park are free and many museums charge relativity low admission fees.

"People want to know what is inexpensive or better yet, free," she said. "While we're not seeing a decline in the top-tier Illinois destinations, events like the smaller, free festivals will be very popular."

Arlington Park isn't small - it sits on more than 300 acres and has 35 barns - but it's cheaper than many attractions.

"This year we're focusing on helping families save money," said Ken Kiehn, the track's vice president of sales, marketing and guest services. "For $12 or $14, a family can bring their own lunch and spend a day at the track. Go to a Cubs game and you'll spend three or four times that much."

About 80 percent of the track's visitors live within 20 miles of the track. So he's talking to you, suburbanites.

Here are ways to save money on your trip to the track:

• Pack your own lunch: Small coolers, nonalcoholic beverages in unopened plastic bottles and individually wrapped food items are all allowed. Coolers are only permitted in the picnic area to the east of the building or on the apron level outside the building.

• Buy online and save: Tickets are $7, but save a buck by buying from through the track's Web site, General parking is still free.

• Look for weekday deals: Wednesdays are "value days" with $5 admissions, and seniors get in for $3 on Thursdays. Sundays are Family Days and feature attractions like the Schaumburg Flyers, Chicago Fire, Legoland, DuPage Children Museum and Brookfield Zoo. Check the track's Web site for the full lineup.

• Live bands, drink specials: The Miller Lite "Party in Park" returns May 22. The Friday events features local bands, food and drink and Baggo game. Also on Fridays the Trackside restaurant will host "Party on the Patio" featuring live music and food off an outdoor grill after the races. The track will also host live bands on Saturdays.

• Breakfast at the track: On select days - May 16, June 6, July 11, Aug 7 (Million weekend) and Sept. 5 - you can watch horses go through their morning training regimen and enjoy a breakfast buffet from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. Announcer John G. Dooley and others host the program and cover everything from training horses to track maintenance. Admission is free; the breakfast buffet is $7 for one-time pass through or $10 for all you can eat. Children are free.

• Public transportation: The Metra Union Pacific Northwest Line to and from Chicago has frequent stops at Arlington Park. Check for a full schedule.

• Follow online: This year, the track is also trying to be more hip, which of course means Twitter and Facebook. Check out the new for all those connections, bloggers, photos and band lineups and more.

• Dates to remember: This year is the track's 82nd anniversary and the 27th anniversary of the Arlington Million. This year the Arlington Million race is on Aug. 8.

Opening weekend at Arlington Park

• Today: The most popular day to play hooky in the suburbs is Arlington Park's opening day. Gates open at 10:45 a.m. today; the first is race at 2:30 p.m. Admission is $7 or $6 online. The track's 98-day season runs through Sept. 27.

• Saturday: The track hosts the "World's Largest Derby Party," complete with ladies wearing special derby hats. In addition to racing, Arlington Park will simulcast the Kentucky Derby. Gates open at 10 a.m. with the first race at 12:15 p.m. There will also be live music on the Miller Lite band stage, and the first 2,500 people to purchase tickets online will receive an official Kentucky Derby glass. Mint julep drinks will be for sale, and Kentucky-themed musicians will roam the grounds. Tracks officials expect more than 10,000 people.