Letter To The Editor: Closing Arlington Will Rob Sport Of Future Fans

I was there on June 29, 1973. Arlington Park was chosen for the return race for Secretariat, his first since capturing the Belmont Stakes, and the Triple Crown, by 31 lengths. I was a month away from turning two, but at least I can say I was there when arguably the greatest thoroughbred ever ran.

I was there on May 25, 1979. I was in the grandstand at Arlington with mom, dad, and my two brothers when someone noticed a large black plume of smoke in the distance from the southeast. A man next to us commented, “you know, that’s where O’Hare is.” Apart from the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the American Airlines Flight 191 crash has the worst death toll in American aviation history.

I was there on July 31, 1985. Mom and dad decided we were going to Arlington, like many other times, that day. We’d heard about the restaurant fire but figured it was small and the horses would still be running. It wasn’t a short trip either, we were coming from Milwaukee, so we had to be pretty sure, or naive. Needless to say, they weren’t running and the entire grandstand was engulfed in flames when we arrived.

I was there on August 25, 1985. The Miracle Million was a sea of humanity and tents. We were all just so glad to see racing at Arlington again, if only for the day. My brother and I had win tickets on Teleprompter and my dad hit the exacta with Greinton.

I was there on July 13, 1996. The Citation Challenge was put together swiftly by management    to attract Cigar, who was attempting to tie Citation’s mark of 16 consecutive victories.

After the win and his press obligations, Jerry Bailey autographed a Cigar T-shirt for me, and many others, in the paddock near the jocks room, showing unbelievable patience and generosity with us, even telling a security guard who offered him a way out, that it was OK, he’d keep signing  until he got everyone.

I was there on August 16, 2003. Storming Home was clearly the best horse in that Arlington Million, but unfortunately he spooked right before the wire and interfered with two of his rivals. It was unbearably hot that day and I almost suffered a heat stroke arguing with a guy about the inevitable DQ, asking him if nothing happened, “Why is Gary Stevens out there lying on the turf course?”

I was there on May 23, 2009. There were a lot of horses with a chance to win the Arlington Matron that day as they turned for home, in a frantic attempt to give his mount the room it needed to possibly win the race, Jamie Theriot slammed into a horse to his right causing a chain reaction of horses and jockeys flying everywhere. One of the jockeys, Rene Douglas, went down and would never walk again.

I was there at Arlington Park not just on these more notable days, but hundreds and hundreds of other days. It didn’t matter if it was Million Day or just an afternoon for basic claimers and allowance runners , I wanted to be there.

First, it wasn’t my choice, if mom and dad were going, the kids were going. Luckily, dad caught the “bug” from grandpa, and mom caught it from dad, and so the story goes. Later on, I learned it wasn’t my choice again, it had chosen me and I had caught the “bug,” and I was helpless to resist.

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I was thoroughly enthralled with going to Arlington Park; it completely captured my imagination and I loved everything about it. From looking through my dad’s old Daily Racing Forms to pretending I was a jockey riding a horse on the arms of the couch to finding wooden planks in the   garage and placing them on the lawn so I could park my little wagon, just the way I’d seen the crew at Arlington do when putting the starting gate on the turf course.

One of my greatest teenage moments was not my driving license or going to prom, it was going up to a betting window at the age of 14 or 15, calling out a bet to the teller, and him giving me the ticket, not even questioning whether I was old enough to bet. I thought I ruled the world. I was eventually caught, taken to the security office, and waited for my parents to be called to the office so they could be notified of my offense, like they didn’t know. I pretended to listen to the security guard as he scolded me but it was during a race, I was listening to the track announcer, not him.

So, fast forward to 2021, it looks like those days at Arlington Park could be a thing of the past. It’s been heartbreaking to witness. That beautiful, breathtaking building on a wonderful piece of land has been decided to be unwanted as a racing property anymore. None of us should be surprised, we’ve seen this movie play out before at Hollywood Park and Calder.

And, yes, there’s plenty of blame to go around, from the foot dragging politicians in Illinois to the management of CDI, but I am not interested in getting into that argument. I have just been hoping  and praying Arlington would get a different fate. It deserves better.

People still actually go to Arlington. On the weekends, they have good crowds with people who are interested and are fans of horse racing. It is the most spectacular way to spend a Saturday afternoon in the summer. Not like these racinos where the horse racing is an almost afterthought, or a necessary evil that’s part of a bigger deal to get slots and table games into the venue. I’ve been to  these racinos too; very few are betting or watching the horses run. No new fans are being created.

And that’s the hardest part for me, if Arlington goes away, no kid in the future will see the things I’ve seen, experienced what I’ve experienced, or have the memories that I’ve had over the last 50 years. Nobody else will be able to be touched by a place so profoundly as Arlington has touched me and my family.

And I know all the cliches and proclamations: change is inevitable, time moves on, CDI is just doing right by their shareholders, and that there are still plenty of other racetracks running. I understand that and do accept that change is inevitable but this one is personal to me. It’s where I learned the game that has been with me my entire life.

I’ve witnessed some of the highest highs and lowest lows at Arlington Park, I’ve seen human stars like Pat Day, Earlie Fires, Jorge Velasquez, Jerry Bailey, Junior Alvarado, Rene Douglas, Sandy Hawley and countless others, and marveled at their courage. I’ve watched equine stars like Lost Code, Meafara, Taylor’s Special, Buck’s Boy, Black Tie Affair, Dreaming of Anna, Manila, Gio Ponti and countless others, and been in awe of their speed and determination. And in another week, that might be all that’s left, memories.

The statue above the paddock at Arlington is that of the photo between John Henry and The Bart from the first Arlington Million, it’s called “Against All Odds,” and the Million run 27 days after the fire that took down the entire building is referred to as the”Miracle Million,”  Is it too much to ask that Arlington still has more Millions left in it, or is it going to take another miracle? Or is the hope that CDI sells the property to one of the bidders that still plans to use the land for horse racing against all odds? Maybe so.

The sport needs as many places like Arlington Park as possible. We can’t keep losing treasures like this and say, “it’ll be fine.” We need the fan base to grow, not just the wagering dollars to increase. You do that at the track. And if this truly is the end, goodbye Arlington, thanks for the memories, it was a hell of a ride. You will be truly missed, it’s too bad your current sellers don’t feel the same way.

– Rob Kaegi is a lifelong fan of Thoroughbred racing

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