Horse racing in Chicago dates back to the 1830s, and at one time the area had more horse racing tracks than any other metropolitan region in North America. The Chicago area currently has four raceways to choose from: Balmoral and Maywood for harness racing, and Arlington and Hawthorne for thoroughbred racing. Tracks tend to be family-friendly and are an affordable way to spend a long Sunday afternoon or a night out after work (depending on wagering, of course). While the wagering aspect may seem a little baffling, it’s easy to learn the basics, and you don’t have to be an ace handicapper to enjoy a day at the races. For those who’ve never seen live horse racing, it’s a great way to have some fun with a group, check out something new and different, maybe win a few bucks, and see some magnificent animals in competition. Here’s a guide for newbies to the Chicago area’s four live racing venues.


Arlington Park

2200 Euclid Avenue
Arlington Heights, IL
General Admission:
Wednesday/Thursday: $6 (Seniors $4)
Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Holidays: $8
Premium Days: $10
General Parking: free

If you’re looking for more of a high-end racing experience, Arlington Park is the place to go. The track has hosted thoroughbred races since 1927, and is well-known for their annual million-dollar thoroughbred race, the Arlington Million, which is run in August. Tickets and dining are a little pricier than the other parks, but you can save by bringing your own food. The location is easily accessible by Metra (there’s a station in the parking lot). The venue is seasonal, with 90 days of live racing scheduled for next year, from Friday, May 4 through Sunday, September 30.


Balmoral Park

26435 S. Dixie Highway
Crete, IL
Grandstand: free
Lincoln Room: $2 admission
Balmoral Club: $2 admission
(Free with 24-hour advance reservation.)
General Parking: free

Balmoral Park has been in operation since 1926, when it was known as Lincoln Fields, and has primarily hosted harness races since the 1950s. The park is currently owned by George Steinbrenner’s family, among others. The track has a one mile dirt oval, with seating capacity of 71,000. The atmosphere is relaxed, the buffet is good, and it’s hard to beat free parking and free grandstand admission. The venue is open all year, on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, Post Time: 7:10 p.m.


Hawthorne Race Course

3501 S. Laramie
Stickney/Cicero, IL
Admission: $3-$4.50
General Parking: free

A visit to Hawthorne is like a Bukowski story come to life, in a good way. It’s clean and pleasant, while looking like it hasn’t changed since the 70s. Most of the betting window staff also appears to be in their 70s. The track opened in 1891, and the large facility has the authenticity and feel-good vibe you’d expect from the oldest family-owned track in North America. The buffet is plentiful, with friendly servers and lots of tables to accommodate groups of all sizes. Extra points for their awesome annual novelty races of the camel and ostrich variety. Fun promotions are just a small part of the attraction for racing enthusiasts, however. In 2009 the Horseplayers Association of North America ranked Hawthorne in the top ten thoroughbred racetracks in North America.


Maywood Park

8600 W. North Avenue
Melrose Park, IL
General admission: $2
General Parking: free

The youngest, and smallest, of the four tracks, Maywood Park opened in 1946 on the former Cook County Fairgrounds. There are a variety of dining and viewing options, from the casual Winner’s Circle Dining Room to private “living room” style Super Booths with leather couches and entertainment centers ($15-$20). The park is open year-round, Thursdays and Fridays, Post Time: 7:10 p.m.

Greg Wahl is a Chicagoan, a freelancer, a grad student, and a seeker of all things awesome & interesting throughout the city and beyond.