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- More from Eileen O. Daday
Exercise riders coming back from their morning rounds last week found an unusual group of onlookers waiting in the paddock: children, lines of them, waiting to pet and feed the horses.
The scene played out at Arlington Park, when nearly 300 children from 10 different Kinder Care Learning Centers across Northwest Cook and Lake counties came to the racetrack for a rare behind the scenes tour.
It was part of their summer camp, when they typically take two field trips a week. Other destinations have ranged from the Museum of Science & Industry to LEGOLAND, but this one took place outside and drew a variety of track employees to participate.
"Most of these kids have been to the track with their families, but this gives them a different perspective," said Tina Almgreen, one of the teachers at the Kinder Care in Arlington Heights who had to hold back her charges from running up to the horses.
Their visit took place on Aug. 11, when the racetrack was dark, or without racing, but the horses and the people that ride and train them still went about their work.
"I liked meeting the jockeys," said Becca Miner, 8, of Lindenhurst, "and we got to go all the way down and see the horses."
Her friend, Shealyn Robinson, 11, of Fox Lake, had lots of questions for the people she met. Like some of the children on hand, she had ridden a horse before but she never knew how much went into making them thoroughbred racing horses.
"For one thing, I was surprised to learn there are 2,000 horses here," Shealyn said. "But then it was cool to learn about all their equipment and what goes into their training."
The children and their teachers gathered first along the rail, to watch riders exercise their horses. Next, they took seats in the grandstand while a group of jockeys came to visit.
They included one of the few female jockeys, Inez Karlsson, a native of Sweden, as well as Chris Emigh, who has won more than 3,000 races. They also met Tim Thornton, who has won two titles at Hawthorn, and up and coming jockey Lindie Wade.
The jockeys provided something of a "show and tell," as they displayed everything from their silks to their whip and goggles before answering a myriad questions.
Next, veteran trainer Liane Davis showed them a saddle, yoke and bridle reins, as well as the blinkers that go over a horse's head to keep them looking straight ahead during a race.
She also described her job in overseeing the care of the horses, monitoring their grooming and eating schedule all the way up to picking out their races and jockeys.
"I feel like I'm the coach, and the horses I train are my team," Davis said. "I'm doing everything I can to make them competitive, because this is their playing field."
The Kinder Care field trip was a first for Arlington Park officials, who conceded they had not hosted a group of children this large in the past, but that they hoped to draw more visits in the future.
"All kids love horses," said Dave Zenner, communications director, "and this gave them a chance to see a little bit of the pageantry of horse racing, as well as the dedication of some of the people who work with the horses.
"You never know the kind of seed you might be planting," Zenner added. "Seeing what goes on behind the scenes, just could make a lasting impression."