A Heartfelt So-Long to Arlington Park

Noel Michaels grew up near Arlington Park in Arlington Heights, Illinois. He attended the races with his parents, fell in love with the sport and built a career in the industry as a reporter, analyst, and handicapper. With the final day of the Arlington meet on Saturday (Sept. 25) amid strong indications the track will cease operations, Noel recalls some of his memorable moments.

By Noel Michaels

 

After a 94-year history of horse racing in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, it appears Arlington Park has reached the end of the line. If that indeed happens, and Saturday is the final day of racing at Arlington, it would not be an exaggeration or hyperbole to call its destruction a tragedy. That’s the way I feel.

Arlington is not unwanted, like so many other old and obsolete racetracks that have come and gone before. It is not unpopular. It is not unwanted in the community. It is not an eyesore.

Just the opposite. It is still a beautiful place and still a showplace for the dwindling and dying sport of thoroughbred racing. It still brings in live crowdsand still welcomes families. Only Saratoga and Del Mar and Keeneland and a small handful of other tracks can boast topping Arlington’s ability to draw crowds for live racing.

The difference is that those other tracks do it based on the strength of the best horses and the best racing and the best purses at the pinnacle of horse racing in the United States. Arlington has been able to do it for an entirely different reason because it’s a just plain lovely place to spend an afternoon.

There’s no spit on the floor, no crumpled-up garbage around or sketchy individuals that plague many other racetracks. None of that. It’s just a beautiful suburban place to hang out.

I do not want to play the blame game — that’s for someone else to tackle. Also, I am not unique in saying that I will cry when the unthinkable wrecking ball comes, and Arlington’s state-of-the-art cantilevered roof comes crashing down. Plenty of people in horse racing and in the Chicagoland area will be in tears when that day comes. But I do have my own unique personal story to tell about the unique experience I have had at Arlington and the key role it played in my life.

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Like so many others in the nearby north or northwest suburbs of Chicago, I grew up going to Arlington with my parents in the ’70s and ’80s. Not because my parents were degenerate gamblers, but because they enjoyed making a few $2 bets and watching the horses and eating hot dogs in the stands on a sunny day. We went for either Mother’s Day or Fourth of July fireworks almost every year.

I remember the news that day when Arlington infamously burned to the ground in a massive fire on July 31, 1985, and as a Chicagoan, I also remember the pride the community had when ‘The Miracle Million’ was run in front of a temporary grandstand less than four weeks later, on Aug. 25, 1985.

After high school, I became a racing fan, which coincided perfectly with the re-opening of the new Arlington International Racecourse after the fire in the spring of 1989. That was the season of the rivalry of Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, and with a glitzy new Arlington to attend to watch all their battles that year, I had no chance. I was hooked for life.

The owner and savior of Arlington were Richard L. Duchossois, a horse owner and businessman and decorated World War II veteran, who always came off as the consummate gentleman in everything he did. He dreamed of building an unparalleled-at-the-time horse racing showplace that would be the envy of the world, and that’s what Arlington truly was at the dawn of the 1990s.

Hall of Famers like Pat Day were meet fixtures in those days, as were Jorge Velasquez, Earlie Fires, and Randy Romero. Shane Sellers was an up-and-comer back then.

Divisidero at Arlingtont Park Handicap

Few people remember that early in the 1990 racing season, Arlington was working on a dream 4-year-old matchup between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer in a $1 million race called the Arlington Challenge Cup. Both Easy Goer and Sunday Silence were retired that year and the race never happened, but it remains an example of how Arlington dreamed big in those days.

I never got to see Sunday Silence and Easy Goer in person, but I did get to go to the Arlington paddock and see some of my equine heroes in the flesh that next year, including 1990 Preakness winner Summer Squall, and 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled, who was truly the most giant and striking thoroughbred I ever laid eyes on. Speaking of the paddock, a guy named Tony Cobitz was the racing analyst back then, followed by Caton Bredar. I used to dream of being them.

Years later I married Karen Johnson, who was the daughter of the legend who became my best friend in the world, trainer Philip “P.G.” Johnson. At PG’s induction into the Racing Hall of Fame, all the media questions were about how PG, then well into his 70s, never had “The Big Horse.” Well, wouldn’t you know it, in 2002 his homebred Volponi came along and was the upset winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Where was the Breeders’ Cup that year? You guessed it — Arlington! I was celebrating in the winner’s circle after the Classic at Arlington with a horse the family-owned. It was my dream come true.

I was already a handicapper and columnist back then for the Daily Racing Form, and I later went on to an executive job at OTB in Long Island and enjoyed a successful career in racing. But I still never had the one job of which I had always dreamed. Seventeen years after standing in the Arlington winner’s circle with Volponi, 28 years after watching those other racing analysts talk about my hero Unbridled and so many others in the Arlington paddock, I pounced on an opportunity to become Arlington’s paddock racing analyst in 2018 and 2019.

I wasn’t getting rich doing it, but I can honestly say that for those two years I got to do my dream job. I was in my late 40s doing the job I dreamed of when I was 20. It was the favorite job I ever had in my life.

I met and even got to know Mr. Duchossois a bit in my two years working at Arlington, and my suspicions all along were correct. He was the ultimate gentleman and a true class act. He’s about to turn 100 and is no longer in charge at Arlington. One thinks things would be different now if he were. They say one of the biggest tragedies in life is having to outlive your children. I always thought of Arlington as Mr. D’s child, and yes, it appears he will outlive it.

When and if the wrecking ball comes to Arlington, it will not only tear down a building, but also the place of so many memories and key parts of my life and in the lives of so many others. I will try to focus on the great memories I have there, but in the back of my mind, I know that Arlington can never be replaced.

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