ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. — There always seemed to be something missing throughout Saturday at Arlington International Racecourse, which was hosting what was likely to be its final “Million Day” of horse racing.
For starters, there was no $1 million purse for the day’s signature Grade I stakes race, the Mr. D. Stakes. The name had been changed in March to honor former Arlington track owner Richard L. Duchossis ahead of his 100th birthday in October, but the purse from the race formerly known as the “Arlington Million” also dropped to $600,000, marking the first time in 40 years the Illinois-based race did not offer a seven-figure payout.
Races were run and bets were made, with some fortunate souls able to cash at the window and some left cursing while ripping up their tickets on the rail. Everything looked normal, but it was difficult to say the race day felt normal, given what has been an awkward and seemingly interminable good-bye since Arlington owner Churchill Downs announced in February it would sell the 326-acre tract of land that houses one of horse racing’s most adored venues in the United States, complete with the cantilevered clubhouse roof.
Sunshine and scene-setting
— Blaise Bollman (@BlaiseLBC) August 13, 2021
I had been to Arlington three times previously, including picking up my media credential Friday. The first was a 5K in 2013 in which participants ran the final half-mile on the track. The tamped-down Polytrack was akin to running on a tempur-pedic marshmallow, but the other takeaway was marveling at the size of the actual track and feeling very small compared to the horses that race around the oval.
The other time was last September when Arlington became the answer to the trivia question of “Which Illinois sports venue was the first to allow spectators?” following the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though capacity had been limited to 300 for the final 12 race days of the 2020 season, it was a ray of optimism as other venues would eventually welcome fans in 2021.
The hope of meeting the limited 10,000 capacity established for Million Day, however, was never realized. The Illinois Racing Board provided Sports Handle a list of figures from Saturday for handle that also included attendance, which was listed at 7,430. That figure is barely more than 20% the track’s full capacity of 35,000 and 42% lower than the 2019 Million that drew 12,776.
The rays on Saturday instead came from the abundant sunshine of a postcard-perfect August afternoon. Temperatures in the low 80s meant fans could dress for the season, as many did, or dress for the event — cocktail dresses and stylish hats for the ladies and summer-style suits for the men.
Walking around the concourse and the long backstretch outside, some of the time-honored Arlington conversations were overheard, including the age-old question of whether heavy favorite John Henry — jockeyed by Willie Shoemaker — did actually beat 40-1 longshot The Bart by a nose to win the inaugural 1981 Million.
Random polling of track employees about the best horse they ever saw run at Arlington included the aforementioned John Henry and 2015 Million champion The Pizza Man, the first Illinois-bred horse to win the event. Also mentioned was the legendary Cigar, who came to the track in 1995 as a 5-year-old and extended his then-unfathomable winning streak to 16 races — matching Triple Crown winner Citation’s run from 1948-50 — by pulling away to claim the Arlington Citation Challenge.
Shuffling about, and oh yeah, the races
There were no such dominant horses like Cigar at this year’s Million, but there were plenty to see up close. While the phrase “magnificent creatures” may be overused for horse racing, it is difficult to come up with a better description being a handful of feet away as they canter for patrons before disappearing down Arlington’s tunnel en route to the oval.
Owners and trainers mingled in the paddock area while race and track officials observed the horses and jockeys. Arlington track President Tony Petrillo was busy throughout, easy to identify making the rounds in a blue suit with pink tie while holding a manila folder throughout his travels.
With 30 minutes between races, it allowed time to amble back and forth from the paddock area and the outdoor backstretch to people watch. One patron, Kevin, sporting what looked to be an original “Miracle Million” T-shirt from 1985, recounted watching Teleprompter win from the infield with his father as the race was run with temporary stands and tents on the grounds less than a month after a fire gutted the grandstand.
There was not much in the way of longshots breaking through early — the highest winning payout among the first six races was $10.60 courtesy Merlin’s Song in the third. Bramble Queen, a 15-1 entrant in the Beverly D., was moved to the Mike Spellman Memorial Stakes by owner Ballybrit Stable and lived up to her favorite status there ($2.80) as she held off all challengers after taking the lead at the three-quarter pole.
The decision to shift Bramble Queen looked wise considering Ireland-based and Beverly D. winner Santa Barbara had the most impressive run of any horse Saturday. Ryan Moore comfortably poised the 2-1 morning-line favorite just behind Mean Mary and Naval Laughter, and Santa Barbara responded more than favorably when asked at the top of the stretch, shooting a gap between her competitors and thundering away for a three-length victory.
Wow, Santa Barbara absolutely oozing her class in the Beverly D Stakes at Arlington…
She got a lot smoother trip this time with Ryan Moore always having plenty of horse under him coming into the straight, she’s starting to reach her potential now💪pic.twitter.com/EaElpg8Pcd
— Grant James Thomas (@Grant_Some92) August 14, 2021
It was a little bit of the same in the Bruce D., with Point Me By waiting a little longer to make his move to overtake Tango Tango Tango down the stretch. Chalk continued to deliver as Santa Barbara and Point Me By returned $4.00 and $5.40, respectively, on tickets to win.
Heading into the Mister D., the talk surrounded England-based horse and 6-5 morning-line favorite Domestic Spending. Trainer Chad Brown was gunning for his fourth consecutive victory in this race, having reached the winner’s circle with Beach Patrol in 2017, Robert Bruce in 2018, and the impressive Bricks and Mortar in 2019.
Bricks and Mortar covered the mile and a quarter in 1:59.44, the first to clock a sub-two-minute time since Awad set the race record at 1:58.69 in 1995. Domestic Spending moved to a 2-5 favorite by post time, with challenges expected to come from Moore on Armory as he sought a second Grade I victory and Zulu Alpha, jockeyed by Luis Saez.
Dublin-born jockey @James_D_Graham wins one of the biggest races of his career, making all the running to win the $600,000 Mr D (formerly Arlington Million) in Chicago on 27/1 shot Two Emmys. pic.twitter.com/dzFRRC7hxH
— The Irish Field (@TheIrishField) August 14, 2021
No one, however, figured on Two Emmys and James Graham stealing the show. Originally a 10-1 offering that slid to 27-1, Two Emmys had placed runner-up in his last two races at Arlington, including the Million Dollar preview last month. The horse entered The Mr. D. with a solid turf history of two wins and six second-place finishes in 11 starts.
Two Emmys broke fast from the fourth gate and led at the quarter-mile. And the half-mile. And the three-quarter mile while dictating the pace. The murmurs in the crowd grew steadily in volume as Domestic Spending lurked fourth at each marker, less than two lengths back.
The magic of horse racing comes when the crowd can see the horses make the turn into the top of the stretch. Fortunes are won and lost, dreams made and shattered. It takes on a heightened feel when a longshot leads, and Two Emmys accelerated through that final turn to gain separation.
But finally, here was Domestic Spending responding to Two Emmys and showing his own furious closing speed trying to make up a two-length deficit over the final furlong as the crowd roared. A bettor who had backed Two Emmys let out a primal scream of “Come on, Jimmy!!!” along the rail as they stormed past with 500 feet to go.
Domestic Spending would come close, but not close enough, as Two Emmys held on by a neck with an impressive final quarter-mile of 22.72 seconds, and the $56.20 payout to win exceeded the combined total of the other nine winners ($46.80).
The media kerfuffle and ensuing fallout
That time when you fly in on little sleep to experience your home racetrack for one last time and you are treated like absolute garbage. I don’t like to be negative on here but what an absolute disgrace from @Arlington_Park.
— Ryan Thompson (@RyanFromChicago) August 15, 2021
I gave Arlington an Irish goodbye between the Mister D. and the final race, The Black Tie Affair Stakes, so I knew nothing about what took place regarding the media in the third-floor press room and them being thrown out by Petrillo while trying to work on deadline until multiple tellings from the principals involved started appearing Saturday night on Twitter and continuing into Sunday.
The incident gained further traction Monday when Daily Herald columnist Jim O’Donnell provided a blow-by-blow account from two of the nine media members involved in what transpired, which included racetrack photographer Jamie Newell being “banned for life” by Petrillo. “Life” in this instance could amount to all of 19 racing days should Churchill sell Arlington to someone not interested in continuing to hold racing — as expected.
Sorry for trying to do my job? 🤷♀️https://t.co/5QOm7sQmuH
— Jamie Newell (@wowhorse) August 16, 2021
IRB Commissioner Alan Henry, a former racing scribe who has not been shy about tweaking Churchill Downs during the commissioner comments portion of board meetings since his appointment in February, made pointed first-hand observations during his time to speak Tuesday from his multiple visits to the track over the past month.
He separated those thoughts to include what he had gathered from Saturday’s events via Neil Milbert, who writes for Harness Racing Update and covered the Arlington Million previously with the Chicago Tribune. Henry, as writers often can and do, presented the incident with some flourish — “while turf writers were working on deadline in the pressbox after the Mister D., track redcoats came and asked everyone to leave. When writers balked, Tony Petrillo came with security guards, heated words followed, and the press were rudely thrown out.”
But it was the fact Milbert requested Henry read a statement into the record that included demanding an explanation from Petrillo about those events that finally provided a sense of what was missing Saturday. It was also the same something that has appeared to escape the Churchill Downs ownership group over recent years.
That something missing Saturday was the soul of Arlington Park.
Scenes from Million Day at Arlington Park