Arlington Heights, Ill.
The trip to Arlington Park’s morning workouts Thursday was not much different. Roll off the 53 freeway at Euclid Avenue, head north on Rohlwing Road, and turn right into the stable entrance.
“Is the quarantine barn still up ahead past the track kitchen at the end of that parking lot?
“Yep. Aidan O’Brien’s horses are there.”
But at 7 a.m. it looked downright desolate. Maybe it had something to do with the timing of my arrival, but I strangely did not find myself having to slow down for equine traffic.
After parking near the clubhouse turn, I walked into the racetrack proper, even if it did not look like that proper old racetrack. The tents set up for the parties, the ones that will be part of Saturday’s Million Day that no longer has a million-dollar race, looked sun-bleached. Down below near the racetrack, the ivory white rails had some rust stains. One was askew.
A walk down the all-too-appropriate grassy knoll to the edge of the track was interrupted by familiar faces, some not seen since my last trip here in 2018. That was the year before racecourse management made the media feel a little less welcome. Two years before the pandemic made everyone feel unwelcome. Three years and a month before Arlington Park will host its last horse race. And who knows how long before a buyer takes this land off the hands of Churchill Downs Inc., the owner wearing the black hat in this tale.
Look at the familiar Arlington Million logo. The word “Million” has been replaced by the phrase “Arlington Heights, Illinois 1927 – 2021”, making it look less like a marketing device and more like a tombstone.
What’s in a name? Forty years ago this month, the Arlington Million was first horse race in the world ever to offer a seven-digit purse. Now it has lost a zero and its old moniker. Since it has been devalued to $600,000, the race needed to be renamed. Now it is the Mister D., named for 99-year-old boss emeritus Richard Duchossois. After the fire that burned down the old grandstand in 1985, it was Duchossois who got the new place built into the most plush racing palace in the country. It still is, even as it is literally being left to rot.
As horses were breezing around the first turn on a sultry Thursday morning, there was something askew. The seven-eighths pole on the turf course was tilted, perhaps a reminder of a recent thunderstorm.
“They’re getting the last drop out of it,” one of the regulars said. “At least it’s still there. The thirteen-sixteenth and five-sixteenth poles on the main track are completely gone.”
At least the tracks themselves are in good shape. Pristine, really.
“This Polytrack is one of the best in the country,” said Wayne Catalano, the jockey turned longtime trainer who just turned 65 and might as well be the mayor of the stables. “At least they’ve been maintaining that.”
The turf course, which will be center stage – literally – for Saturday’s last annual International Festival of Racing, looks perfect as usual. Since it rained so hard early in the week, there is still moisture in it. So there was no racing on it Thursday. By Saturday it will probably be on the good side of firm.
Nevertheless, the racing world is no longer beating a path to the green grass’s front door the way it used to. The Breeders’ Cup pulled its win-and-you’re-in status from the Mister D., the Beverly D. and the Bruce D. The allowance of Lasix for these stakes could be looked at as a reason. The uncertainty of their status did not help, either.
Last year was a waste – and not really because of COVID. A nasty dispute between horsemen and track management was what really left the joint idle all spring. Once that was settled, the inability to allow fans to visit the track gutted the budget for race purses. There was so little money left that the thought of staging the Arlington Million or anything that would cost much more than $10,000 a race was imprudent.
The three big stakes were brought back this year, still as Grade 1s, but with less money available. The Million necessarily became the $600,000 Mister D. The Beverly D. kept its name while its purse was cut from $600,000 to $400,000. The Bruce D., which used to be the Secretariat, was cut from $500,000 to $300,000.
Arlington’s racing office had its hands full trying to fill this card. Foreign interest is way down, although the Irish presence of Coolmore still manifested itself with two horses in the name of Aidan O’Brien. With his trio of shippers, Chad Brown brings less than his strongest hand from New York as he tries to run his winning streaks to six in the Beverly D. and four in the Million/Mister D.
The Bruce D. is a Grade 1 in name only. The nine entries include one maiden and four other horses that could still qualify to compete in a non-winners-of-more-than-one race. There is no Aidan. And no Chad.
Before the first snow this winter, Churchill may finalize a deal with the buyer who will drop untold riches to grab these 326 acres of suburban land, a plot that is about 40 percent of the size of New York’s Central Park. The Chicago Bears have expressed public interest.
“Arlington Park is a very high choice,” the Bears said. “It’s a good site. That’s what attracted my grandfather back in the ’70s. Arlington Park is a terrific site.”
That quote from the late Mike McCaskey and in reference to George Halas actually showed up in a United Press International story in the fall of 1986. That was the year after a fire destroyed the old Arlington grandstand. Duchossois entertained the Bears’ kicking of his tires back then, so this is nothing new.
In 1986 as in 2021, it was a clear signal to the City of Chicago that Soldier Field was not good enough anymore. Mayor Harold Washington did not blink. He did not flinch, either. He called the bluff, and the Bears did not get their stadium rebuilt for another 16 years.
Now the real estate in this tony suburb is being used again as a bargaining chip, even as there is no shortage of signs the Bears’ fractured management is serious about the idea of a move northwest. Mayor Lori Lightfoot does not seem fazed by this, especially not when her city is still up to its ears in violent crime with barely two cents to rub together in a pandemic economy. It might be unpopular to let the Bears leave the lakefront, but spending tax money on another stadium for a team worth more than $3 billion build feels like a complete non-starter.
There is still the chance horsemen themselves may buy the track much the way they did in New Jersey nine years ago when Monmouth Park was up for grabs. But on the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, soon-to-be nine-time Arlington training champion Larry Rivelli regarded the bid as “a Hail Mary. We were a third-and-lone at one point, but right now it’s a Hail Mary.”
Without knowing who the other parties are who made bids to CDI – there is at least one more – the loudest guess heard Thursday was that a developer would eventually score Arlington’s land, knock down the grandstand and stables and replace them with condos and a shopping district. It is not as sexy as Bears’ interest, but it may be the short-priced favorite.
You know those infield trees that for years have confoundingly blocked the grandstand view of the backstretch? They might be the only things that survive the wrecking ball soon.
Saturday will be the next to last time there will be a big crowd at Arlington Park. Closing day Sept. 25 will be the last time. At least this weekend there will be some vestige of positives to celebrate.
Racing for Brown, three-time Grade 1 winner Domestic Spending (6-5) will make his morning line to win the Bruce D. look like an bargain against the reality of his odds-on price. Nicolle Neulist, a contestant on Friday’s episode of “Jeopardy!” who doubles as a chart caller for Equibase, makes a great case for Irish invader Armory (9-2). She points to the fast company he has kept in Europe in making her case for an upset. She has me convinced to key Armory and include Domestic Spending in a chalky exacta box.
Taking the European-turf-is-tougher theory a step further would seem to make Santa Barbara (2-1) worth a bet in the Beverly D. But it says here she has was not as competitive over there, that that is why O’Brien sent her here to win the Grade 1 Belmont Oaks last month. I am not convinced Mean Mary (9-5) is worth the favorite’s price, so I will look to Naval Laughter (9-2), a course horse that won last month’s Grade 3 Modesty over the same course and distance.
Like A Saltshaker (12-1) is the wise-guy 3-year-old in the throw-a-dart-at-the-board Bruce D. He is 0-for-3 since he came to Rivelli’s barn last fall, but those were all off the turf. He was a close second despite a poor start at Belmont Park in his only start on the grass in a minor stakes last Halloween. At best he is a sprinkle play for me. The focus of my money in this race will be on Point Me By (3-1), a lightly raced maiden winner that gets jockey Luis Sáez on a visit from his white-hot run at Saratoga.
The mood is bound to be like that one final weekend at a favorite bar that is about to be turned into office space. I have had one too many experiences at wakes like that. And I will have one more when I visit here next month for the last of Arlington’s lasts.
Then again, this place has had its last days before. Before the 1985 fire. Before the omnipresent contract disputes with horsemen left the joint in mothballs in 1998 and 1999. And then last spring.
Duchossois turns 100 in less than two months. I doubt he wants to outlive his racetrack – his baby. But he knew this day might come when he sold it 21 years ago to Churchill. Little did he know he would live to see it.
In addition to this weekly article, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode comes from Arlington Park near Chicago, where the last edition of Million Day is Saturday. Eight-time training titlist Larry Rivelli and twice leading jockey Jareth Loveberry talk about the track’s final weeks. Nicolle Neulist of Equibase in Chicago discusses the future of Illinois racing and her appearance this week on “Jeopardy!” Johnny Avello of DraftKings Sportsbook handicaps Saturday races at Arlington and Saratoga. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.