Think of Chicago and a few staples are sure to pop into your head. Gut-wrenching blues. Al Capone. Great steaks. And, of course, sports. Dick Butkus and Da Bears. Michael Jordan and Da Bulls. The ivy-covered, red-brick outfield walls of the Cubs' Wrigley Field. The White Sox and the Blackhawks. Admittedly, horse racing has never been high on my list. Call me parochial, but I've always associated thoroughbred racing with the Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs, or maybe Saratoga.
Not anymore. On October 26th, the prestigious Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships make their inaugural foray to the Midwest, miles inland from their typical coastal environs of California, New York, and Florida. Playing host is none other than Arlington Park, the celebrated track situated a short 27-mile drive (or train ride) outside the Windy City. The 19th annual Breeder's Cup promises to be the single biggest day of horse racing in the world, with a total purse of $13 million for the eight races, including $4 million for the featured event (by comparison, the Dubai World Cup in the United Arab Emirates is the world's richest single horse race, with a purse of $6 million). It is also the crowning achievement for a park that, at times, seems to have more lives than Felix the Cat.
Truth be told, Arlington Park owns a history that nearly rivals that of its local sports venue brethren such as Soldier Field (the Bears), Comiskey Park (the White Sox), or the dearly departed Chicago Stadium, (formerly the Bulls and Blackhawks).[Brion: one word or two? One]. The race track was built in Arlington Heights, the brainchild of Curley Brown, and opened in October, 1927. In a city where money talked loudly, especially in the voting booths and the speakeasies, Arlington Park didn't disappoint. To draw top-shelf competition, the track unveiled the Arlington Classic in 1929, with larger winnings than any of the Triple Crown races - the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes.
In 1952, Arlington became the first race to offer a $100,000 purse, and in 1981, horse racing witnessed its first $1 million event, the Arlington Million (won by Hall of Fame jockey Bill Shoemaker aboard John Henry). With seven figures came renewed prestige. The race, and the track, drew the best jockeys and horses from around the world. Even a small sampling of the jockeys to compete here reads like a horse racing Hall of Fame party - Shoemaker, Eddie Acaro, Johnny Longden, Steve Brooks, Bill Hartack, and Walter Blum. The list of champion race horses is just as impressive, with names even the casual racing fan would recognize - Bewitch, Citation, Nashua, Secretariat and Spectacular Bid.
In 1985, however, disaster came calling. At the same time that Michael Jordan was etching his number 23 into basketball lore, an enormous fire consumed the Arlington Park's great wooden grandstands. The track was left in ruins only a month before the scheduled running of the Arlington Million. Undaunted, track officials and work crews cleared more than 21 tons of debris and erected 43 tents, setting the stage for the "Miracle Million" on August 25. An estimated crowd of 35,000 watched from temporary bleaches as Great Britain's Teleprompter edged Greinton by less than a length.
The next decade was one of promise for Arlington Park. The park was rebuilt and renamed - Arlington International Racecourse. On July 13, 1996, the reigning Horse of the Year, Cigar, came to Arlington seeking his 16th consecutive victory[ B: 16th consecutive win, I presume. Correct] to tie Citation's modern-day record. Ridden by Jerry Bailey, the six-year-old dominated down the stretch and won the Arlington Citation Challenge, confirming his reputation as one of horse racing's greatest champions.
From those great heights, the track fell again. By 1998, dwindling purses and second-tier competition forced the park to close its doors. However, after a two-year hiatus, the thundering hooves and raucous crowds returned as pro-racing legislation and a merger with Churchill Downs Inc. buoyed the track's sagging interests. Once again, Arlington Park's betting windows and starting gates entertained brisk business.
Today, the 340-acre Arlington Park complex features a huge six-story, 700,000-square-foot grandstand overlooking the two race courses, with the one-mile turf track neatly squeezed inside the 1 1/8-mile dirt oval. Seating, normally 13,000, swells to 50,000 for major events. Race fans can choose from more than a half dozen restaurants, from casual to upscale. Thirty five barns dot the stable area, providing enough room for more than 2,000 horses. Simply, the park has won over trainers, horse owners and horse racing fans alike. Laura Hillenbrand, author of the best-selling novel "Seabiscuit," has called Arlington Park "the most beautiful race track in the United States.”
The 2002 racing calendar, which marks the 75th anniversary of the original park, gets under way June 5, and offers the 20th running of the Arlington Million on Aug. 17. The season culminates with "Preview Weekend at the Park" on Sept. 28-29, and the eight races of the 19th Breeders' Cup a month later. The smart money says all eyes will be on a lively track just northwest of Chicago on Oct. 26. I’d take that bet.