A Chicagoan's Premature Goodbye To Arlington

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The grandstand entrance at Arlington Park | Horsephotos

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, IL–The year was 1981. I was approaching freshman year at Wheeling High School, not far from my home, about 15 minutes north and east of Arlington Park.

Three doors down from me at 1512 Clearwater Drive lived a heavy-set, middle-aged man named Bert Loebmann. He and a partner campaigned a then 4-year-old filly named Diablo Morn (that I still remember this name 40 years later is either really frightening or super impressive, you decide). Bert was an enthusiastic horse owner, even if Diablo Morn wasn't going to make him famous–or anyone else, for that matter. Trained by Jerry D. McGrath, she made her first few Chicago appearances in allowance company at Hawthorne (purse $9,700), but she eventually found her level at Arlington the next summer, finishing second with Pat Day for $11,500 claiming before winning two starts later on the grass under John Lively for $13,000. She got her picture taken twice in 32 starts, she earned a shade more than $27,000.

Roughly diagonal from my home, at 707 Clearwater Court, resided Paul Levy, a dark-skinned, shortish man who looked the part of a horseplayer (maybe even a bigger gambler than I ever realized). My parents were friendlier with the Levys than they were with the Loebmanns. Paul was a gambler, but did not own any horses. In my early teens, Paul would take me and his stepson, my classmate Michael, to the track, where we'd try to turn two bucks into an undefined larger sum by betting show parlays. I remember vividly that Paul wanted no part of Sunny's Halo when the 1983 GI Kentucky Derby winner shipped in for the GI Arlington Classic. He insisted Play Fellow was the right horse. He was not wrong and got paid nearly 5-1 for that opinion.

Between my two neighbors, a lifelong fan was created. I attended my first Arlington Million a few months later, its third running. John Henry was looking to add to his victory in the inaugural renewal of America's original seven-figure race, but when it was announced that the turf condition was to be listed as 'good,' I turned my attention to an easy-ground loving horse trained by someone called Luca Cumani. I knew nothing of him, nor was I remotely aware that placings in races like the 2000 Guineas, St James's Palace, Eclipse S. and Sussex S. were a highly positive thing. In any event, the task seemed extremely tall for Tolomeo and Pat Eddery, the tote read 38-1 (well, probably read 30-1, to be fair). I proudly bet $2 to show and watched Tolomeo knife through late to take down 'Big John.' He paid $17.80 to show. What did I know from exactas, er, perfectas? I was only 16 and probably wasn't supposed to be betting at all. Tolomeo remains the only 3-year-old winner of the Million to this day. And John got his second in emphatic style the next summer, defeating Robert Sangster's future GI Breeders' Cup Mile winner Royal Heroine (whose sire Lypheor was also responsible for Tolomeo) and Gato del Sol.

Having graduated WHS in 1985, I took a trip to Germany (I'd been named student of the year in the language, hold your applause), but I got desperately homesick, flew home a few days early. Not long after my return, on July 31, and just a couple of weeks before I was set to enter freshman year at the University of Illinois, I learned that the track was on fire. It felt like I could reach out and grab the tower of black smoke all the way from 1518 Clearwater. I got in my Chevy Impala, drove that direction and somehow managed to watch the conflagration from the adjacent train station parking lot. One of the saddest sights I have ever seen. You all know of the never-say-die attitude of Richard L. Ducchossois, the tent city, Teleprompter defeating Greinton to win the 'Miracle Million.'

I became a bit disconnected from racing while in college, though I did make the occasional visit to the OTB in Champaign. I moved back to Wheeling in the early 1990s and met up with Walt, Bill and Jerry, older gentlemen from nearby suburbs, and my friend to this day Rob, roughly my age and who–more than any other person–is responsible for stoking my interest in racing. Every Saturday, without fail, we'd meet on the Arlington apron, watch the horses gallop around, listen to backstretch banter, handicap and plan for that afternoon's rendezvous.

In 1995, I had a close-up with Mariah's Storm. That was cool, given how she has impacted the Thoroughbred breed over the last two-plus decades. Mariah and the locally based Golden Gear were the first two horses I got to know 'up close and personal' that went on to the Breeders' Cup.

I also made the acquaintance of a trainer named Neil Pessin, made my first trip to Keeneland that fall, an overnight car ride with Rob, had breakfast at the Keeneland track kitchen, fell asleep waiting to see A.P. Indy at Lane's End. True story. By the way, did you know Neil ran one in the Million? Coaxing Matt was sixth to Star of Cozzene (minus Lure) in terrible ground in '93.

The 1995 Million holds a very special place all these years later. My late father wasn't much of a racing fan, but he quickly pored over the PPs and asked me to bet on Awad for him. With the late Kevin Goemmer on the mic that year and with dad listening on the radio (WBBM, I think, maybe WIND), David Donk's long-winded galloper took advantage of a lively pace to beat Sandpit (Brz) at nearly 6-1, adding to his 22-1 upset of the GI Secretariat S. two years prior. Marlin completed that same double in 1996/1997 (Stevens masterfully walked the dog) before the track closed for two years.

In the summer of '96, I got to feel what it might have been like when Secretariat paid a visit to Arlington some 23 years earlier. Cigar put better than 34,000 into the stands July 13, looking to equal Citation's modern-day record of 16 victories in a row. With 130 pounds and the weight of the Thoroughbred world on his back, the Horse of the Year turned for home to a deafening roar from the crowd and rolled to a comfortable success. He received a hero's welcome when he came back in front of the stands. Sure glad I decided to leave the company picnic that day to see my equine hero. It ranks as easily my most memorable and thrilling moment as a horse racing fan.

Right there in my backyard.

To herald the return of the Million in 2000, the purse was doubled and Juddmonte's Chester House–maybe the best-feeling horse I've ever seen in the build-up to a big race–gave Bobby Frankel his first of two Millions. Beat Hollow took the 2002 renewal for a mere $1-million pot. Speaking of 2002, the gang and I sat out on the apron freezing our butts off for the only Breeders' Cup hosted by the track. Couldn't have had Volponi, but did cash a nice bet on Vindication.

Other names to grace the Million trophy include the venerable The Tin Man, the versatile Gio Ponti, the popular Little Mike. In 2015, I made a non-working trek to visit my brother out in the far Northwest suburbs and dragged my three kids with (their first plane flight, too). They each were given four $2 win tickets (I guess I kept one of the longshots). My middle stepdaughter was recipient of the $13.80 returned by Illinois-bred The Pizza Man. On a dad/daughter visit to the TDN's Red Bank offices, Maddie 'drew' The Pizza Man on a dry erase board. It still hangs proudly on the fridge a half-dozen years later.

As it was for fans to say goodbye to places like Garden State Park and Bay Meadows, and Suffolk Downs and Atlantic City and Hollywood Park, it was not easy walking out of the paddock for the last time after Saturday's Million (as much respect as I have for Mr. Duchossois, I can't, just can't).

1998 Breeders' Cup Turf winner Buck's Boy | Horsephotos

I will not forget the countless winter Saturdays and Sundays spent upstairs at the Trackside OTB, a place I left a successful Derby future wager on a horse named Monarchos. The place where a vocal contingent of Jamaicans loved to cheer on horses like Jack's Big Mac (pronounced Jacques-a-big-mock).

There was that time standing in front of a bank of TVs (I think this pre-dated full-card simulcasting) getting ready to watch the 1996 GII Suburban H. Next thing I know, a bespectacled older gentleman steps over in my direction and encourages me to 'bet Wekiva (Springs), big.' The push came from long-time Chicago Sun-Times turf writer Dave Feldman.

I will always remember scooting over to the track from home or zipping up Route 53 after cutting out of work early when you could get in for free after the seventh to see the likes of Jeremy Jet and Fritz Barthold and Harham's Sizzler and Gee Can He Dance and The Vid. Little Bro Lantis, Mr. Springfield, Downtown Clown, Katie Be Fast, Hunk of Clas, Crown's Way. Horses like Kuma, Major Dandy, You Dancing Devil and Soccory. Asiel Stable runners like Bonita Meadow, trained by the legendary Richard Hazelton, the familiar green-and-yellow colors of top Illinois breeders Team Block. And all those Noel Hickey-trained Irish Acres runners, like Classic Fit and Buck's Nephew and Thesunshinesbright. Maybe even a Buck's Boy sighting.

Those were good times. Shame there won't be more.

All good things must come to an end, or so they say.

Farewell, Arlington. I sure am going to miss you.

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