If you go
Arlington Park: 2200 W. Euclid Ave., Arlington Heights, (847) 385-7500, arlingtonpark.com
Hours: Gates open at 11:15 a.m. Thursdays through Sundays, also Monday, July 5, through Sept. 26. First race is at 1 p.m. except Friday when it is 3 p.m. (2 p.m. Fridays in September.) Exceptions: 12:15 p.m. Saturdays, July 17, and Aug. 21; 4 p.m. Saturday, July 3, for "Racing, Music and Fireworks"
You don't have to know anything about horse racing to enjoy a day with your family at Arlington Park.
The sprawling 700,000-square-foot facility caters to serious bettors, while also offering a huge variety of options for anyone who just wants to have a relaxing, low-cost day outdoors.
"There's something here for everybody, whether you're a family with young children or a seasoned horse player," said David Zemmer, senior manager of communications.
Weekends at Arlington take on a festival-like atmosphere. The park area is packed with picnic tables on the grass where families can bring their own lunch or dine on barbecue and ice cream from outdoor concession stands. Fridays and Saturdays local bands set up on a stage, playing between races and bringing out crowds of college students and young adults.
From noon to 4 p.m. Sundays, kids can enjoy a free petting zoo and pony rides and other activities organized by Brookfield Zoo, the DuPage Children's Museum and other local organizations. Races run every Thursday through Sunday through the end of September, but most of the family activities end by Labor Day.
Another popular spot for kids is the fence around the paddock where all the racehorses are saddled before moving to the track. Jockeys often stop to chat with kids and visitors are welcome to take nonflash photos.
Seats are mostly first-come, first-served so it's best to get there early, though there are special areas reserved for season ticket holders. If you need to escape the heat, grab some pizza, funnel cake or candy at the indoor food court, which added new digital menus this year to make it easier to change up offerings.
A gift shop offers a variety of racing merchandise including binoculars for a better view. Televisions visible along the track provide close-ups to follow the action and there are plenty of sets inside showing the races at Arlington and other tracks around the country.
This year also offers a new hangout for adults. Arlington Park converted an unused game room into Longshots, a sports bar where you can watch big games along with what's happening on the track. The space features banks of TVs, a jukebox and bar games such as Golden Tee and darts. You can place wagers there, but local sports are the real focus. The bar stays open after all the races are over to televise big sporting events.
Other dining options range from the casual Paddock Pub, where you can dine on crab cakes and sandwiches with a view of the paddock to the posh Million Room, which serves jumbo shrimp and filet mignon.
With so many races and horses to choose from, betting can seem intimidating. Regular seminars provide tips for novices on how to read programs and place wagers.
"With just a little bit of a primer you can learn how to play this game and go home with more than you came with," Zemmer said.