Arlington made a big deal out of promoting "Opening Week" this year, probably because they opened on the Wednesday afternoon right after Hawthorne closed on Tuesday. (Uh oh. Will they blame Hawthorne for over racing the horses if there's bad fields the first few weeks?)
However, that big deal was made until about Tuesday night, when I first started seeing some TV ads and hearing radio ads. Before that had been an absolute void, and I wasn't the only horsplayer in town who'd noticed. Luckily for them, I knew when it was anyhow, and headed on out on a cold, wet afternoon.
Surprise #1 is that admission is $5 this year, not the $4.75 it was last year. You can still get $4.75 if you present your Twin Spires card. That's a big 25 cents off! Gadzooks, chump! If you go 20 times this year, you could save five American dollars! 40 times, ten dollars. I don't see how anyone could resist becoming a member of the Twin Spires Club with awesome savings like that to be realized. On the down side, the totally free admissions you can earn with your Twin Spires membership points seem to have been severely devalued, like getting one coupons for 1000 points instead of a book of three. Something like that. (This is what I heard 2nd hand. I don't personally belong.) Wednesdays and Thursdays are seniors days, with admission $2 to them. That was most of the crowd upon early arrival on Wednesday, and they grabbed all the good tables.
On Saturday, there was the big calendar giveaway to the first 10,000 paying customers, commemorating 75 years of racing at Arlington, though I somehow seem to distinctly recall a couple of years recently when there was no racing at Arlington. But we'll let that slide. The big news is this was a $12.99 value! I guess. Maybe the value was the coupons inside, some of which were only good on some day in April of 2003. The coolest coupons were for free admission. Oddly, these were only a $3 value. Oh yeah - when you use the coupon you don't get the fabulous track program. Wonder if they'd let me in on normal days for $3 if I told them I really didn't need that program?
The shingling over the two entrances and atop the paddock is looking pretty ratty, and the paint is peeling from the little spires atop the two entrances. I never remember this sort of inattention to the looks of the place when it was Duchossois alone running it. But the big news of the day was that the screen or netting over the outdoor speakers suspended from the far left underside of the roof has been replaced, after only two years of torn fabric flapping in the breeze. The pigeons of the neighborhood are probably up in arms. As this torn netting was all the talk of the free 3rd floor seats in recent years, this was quite big news.
Looks like there was some resurfacing of the 3rd level GS floor, as well. Toteboard modified to show 14 horses, but that was not an issue either day. The sturdy wood picnic tables that graced the concourse at the top of the apron have been replaced by plastic ones that squeak and groan when you sit at them. For some reason, the big screen monitor overlooking the paddock, where you used to be able to see odds and stuff, had its cover rolled down and was not in operation (either Wednesday or Saturday). To tell you the truth, it was looking pretty crappy last year. Maybe they just decided to shut that puppy down and not get it fixed. Not having it is pretty irritating, though.
The rest of the plant looked great, as did the paddock and track. No visible sign yet of any work in prep for the BC, except maybe some foliage cut down on the far turn.
Despite the cold blustery day there ended up being a nice crowd on hand. (Good crowd on Saturday for the Belmont simulblast, too, and much nicer weather.) Unfortunately, due to the rain the turf races were off, and because of that and some other whatnot, we had a lot of scratches. Kind of made for small, uninteresting fields, but a few good prices ensued nonetheless. I am going to have difficulty adjusting from the big ultra-competitive fields at Hawthorne to this AP racing, I can tell right now. Bet way less than usual, as I just could not see where it was worth it. The rest of the country did not agree with me apparently, as the AP pools were about 1/2 again as big as the usual at Haw or Spt. (Saturday was better, but still suffered from excessive scratches.)
Picked two nice winners but still lost $17 on the day. Won it back, almost, on Saturday. Down $1.90 two days into the meet. The pressure is on.
The oddest thing - when I went to bet the 9th on Wed., and it was way way after the 8th was official, one of the two Amtote self-serve machines I hit (they have the new "graphic" ones now) still showed the 8th as a bettable race. So I tried it, right up to the point where I would punch "print ticket", which I didn't. Thought it was odd, so reported it to a mutuel supervisor, who looked a bit flustered at the news. Don't know what became of it, but sure hope it wasn't actually punching tix.
Another machine did the same Saturday. This time I tried actually punching a ticket. It wouldn't let me. That's good. But I must say, these new AmTote self-serve terminals just suck. If they aren't leaving already run races "open" to fool you, the touch spots are not aligned with the visible button, so you're constantly ending up with the wrong track, or betting $50 when you meant to bet $1. Bring back those old amber button and black metal monsters, if this is the alternative. At least all they ever did was eat the occasional voucher.
Did not try any food on Wednesday. Bought some mediocre ground beef generic hardshell tacos on Sat. which seemed vastly overpriced at two for $5 as compared to the great soft-shell steak tacos of Sportsman's that ring in at 3/5 the price. Tasted about the same as the junky steak tacos served at Haw where at least you get 1/3 more tacos for the same price. Then again, I don't believe the prices at AP are designed to appeal to the local players who frequent all the tracks all year long. Nope. I believe they're designed to take advantage of the families that come out once a year, like the newbie family that sat next to us on one of the squeaky picnic tables before the Saturday races. Before I got up to wander, I made it a point to tell them they could go down to the picnic area tent and get all their concessions for about 1/3 less than what gets charged at the inside food court. Always trying to do my part for new fans.
Got a 2nd hand report that there's now a fee for some carrels somewhere on the 2nd floor that used to be free, but that doesn't affect me. Big plastic bottle beer still $4.75, tap beer $4. That tap beer's a buck more than at the west side tracks, and smaller, but doesn't taste one bit better. You'd think it should in a fair world.
Rene Douglas got off to a quick start with three wins. Hollendorfer had one nice winner (nice looking, not nice price) and sent out another two at low prices and got their butts spanked. (And got more spanked over the next several days.)
The most personally exciting event of the the two days occurred on Saturday, when I just happened to hanging around an outdoor beer stand over by the Picnic Area (and where were the animals for the petting zoo, huh? Raise the admission $0.25 and no animals?). The kid manning the beer stand was apparently new and had set up his beer stand wrong. A full contingent of four Arlington executives in suits, some sort of supervisor, and a guy in a chef hat and smock, all descended on this poor kid to correct the setup of his beer stand. And here I had just bought a beer from him, and the entire transaction had gone without a hitch. Little did I know I had been served from a beer stand that was set up so wrong that it required this sort of management attention. I think I should have got a refund.
All in all the place is looking good and I'm hoping for a fun summer. It'll be the first since about 1997 that I'm planning on visiting more than just a couple times. If they can just get a few more competitive horses into each race and do something about those horrid AmTote terminals I'll be a mostly happy man. I hold out no hope on any of the pricing, though. No problem. I'll just stop by the L&L Snack Shop down on NorthWest Highway for a huge breakfast each day beforehand. Scrambled eggs, three big sausages or maybe corned beef hash, a couple chunks of ham, hash browns, and Greek toast, all for about $4.75. But maybe at Arlington, a $12.99 value.