Welcome to Arlington Million Week.
For one week out of the year, Chicago becomes the center of the racing universe. Sorry, Saratoga. Step aside, Del Mar. We are where the action is.
The Arlington Million, with its one million dollar purse, was the first race to put seven digits in the purse back in 1981. NBC broadcast the race live. You probably have seen the end of the race and have may never realized it. Atop Arlington's paddock is a statue that shows the outcome of the race, with John Henry winning by a whisker over 40-1 The Bart on a marshy course. Roll tape!
Not long afterward, the Arlington Million obtained a Grade 1 ranking, the highest in all of racing. Two more races, both with G1 stature would follow in more recent years, the Beverly D. for fillies and mares and the Secretariat for three-year-olds.
Despite the Instant Classic nature of the '81 Arlington Million, it's been a race that's seen many quality runners and a ton of history. John Henry a second time. Teleprompter with fresh memories of a destroyed grandstand. Estrapade, the only female. Awad in a sizzling time. Powerscourt crossing the wire twice but winning once. The Tin Man all the way around.
And the Beverly D. and the Secretariat share the card, too. New this year will the 1 11/16 mile American St. Leger for long-distance types. All will use the Arlington grass course, all with purses exceeding a quarter million.
Wow. And Picks and Ponderings will be there every step of the way.
It used to not be this way, though.
You see, I should confess. I'm not a pure-bred Chicagoan.
There are no birth records of me at Stroger Hospital, no "My First (Cubs/Sox/...) Game" pictures, no memories of a downstate trip to Springfield. Originally, I'm from a far-off land called Pennsylvania. They have racing there, too with Penn National and Parx (nee Philadelphia Park nee Keystone) as the live tracks. A closer option for those (myself included) from the middle and western parts of the state was Charles Town Races (and later, with slots) in eastern West Virginia. A recent addition to the state is Presque Isle Downs near Erie.
But none of these tracks-Parx, Charles Town (with its ambiance now on par with "Press Your Luck" tapings), Presque Isle, or Penn National--had high quality Grade One races (Note: yes, the Cotillion is a G1, but it was only granted that status for this year). Despite the purse increases from alternative gaming (i.e. slot machines), none of them had races that a major network would carry. None of them had races that drew media and attention from multiple corners. None of them had races that made you say "I want to go to it".
Arlington has it. THREE of them.
So when I arrived here about four years ago, I was once asked what things I wanted to do once I would call Chicago my home.
First response: Arlington Park for Million Day.
It took some time (finding an apartment, a place of employment, moving your possessions) to get to Arlington just for a more ordinary day of racing. (In September, the wavy flashbacks will return.) The first Million for yours truly would come the following year. Presious Passion was the story horse, fresh off a win in the United Nations where he opened up a gazillion (okay, twenty) length lead in the stretch and still won by three while smashing the timer. Gio Ponti was the winner, however, taking advantage of a course softened by overnight rain.
Three Million Days later, I know have the privilege and honor of bringing Million Day to ChicagoNow, to Twitter, and to all of you readers. It will be an exhausting but exhilarating week (a post about that will follow on Sunday night), with events nearly every day. With posts here on this space nearly every day. With the culmination coming on Saturday August 18 on a one-hour program on WGN and WGN America.
I know that I can't claim a birthright. I know that I can't reflect on childhood experiences of Million Days past. I know that I can't say I skipped summer classes at UIC to go out to it.
But I can say that it's a race I love on a day I love.
W elcome to Arlington Million Week.