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updated: 8/18/2012 10:43 PM

Arlington Million remains a special day in suburbs

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  • JOE LEWNARD/jlewnard@dailyherald.comLittle Mike, right, is the Arlington Million at Arlington Park Saturday.

      JOE LEWNARD/jlewnard@dailyherald.comLittle Mike, right, is the Arlington Million at Arlington Park Saturday.

  • JOE LEWNARD/jlewnard@dailyherald.comLittle Mike, with jockey Ramon Dominguez, is the winner of the Arlington Million at Arlington Park Saturday.

      JOE LEWNARD/jlewnard@dailyherald.comLittle Mike, with jockey Ramon Dominguez, is the winner of the Arlington Million at Arlington Park Saturday.

  • JOE LEWNARD/jlewnard@dailyherald.comJockey Ramon Dominguez celebrates after winning the Arlington Million aboard Little Mike at Arlington Park Saturday.

      JOE LEWNARD/jlewnard@dailyherald.comJockey Ramon Dominguez celebrates after winning the Arlington Million aboard Little Mike at Arlington Park Saturday.

 
 

Saturday's 30th running of the Arlington Million was celebrated by astonishing weather and 34,002 fans, the largest crowd for the race in this century.

I have covered probably 25 Millions, maybe more, and this had the feel of one of the most spectacular. For the record, I'm not saying that just because I had the winner. What, you thought I was going to bet on a horse not named Little Mike?

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Anyway, this day was good for Arlington Park, good for Chicago racing, good for a local sports landscape that can use a successful thoroughbred event.

The first Million was run in 1981 and all these years later, fans still roar when the gate opens; the buzz still increases as they spin toward the stretch run; the cheers still reach a crescendo as these magnificent animals approach the finish line.

The Chicago area's premier horse race took 32 years to complete 30 editions, which in itself tells you something about how difficult it was to get here.

No matter how long it took for the Million to hit No. 30, it's a great accomplishment when hardly anything new lasts more than 15 minutes.

Television shows, sporting events, rock bands, rookies of the year, saloons -- hot today, frozen out tomorrow.

But the Million endured through all sorts of adversity.

My goodness, the original Arlington Park burned down in 1985. For three years the race had to be run essentially in a tent city with one dubbed the Miracle Million. Perhaps worst of all, the race's official name at one point was the Budweiser Million.

The Breeders' Cup came along to steal some of the Million's thunder. The introduction of riverboat casinos placed Arlington in financial jeopardy. The track shut down for two years in the late 1990s over a dispute with the state.

The entire horse racing industry has struggled and Arlington currently says it needs slot machines to generate enough revenue for its racing meets to prosper.

Through it all, the Million has continued to rear up and kick.

Think of how distant Saturday was from the inaugural race in 1981, when a bettor had to be on the premises to put down a wager. Now bets can be placed around the state at off-track establishments and around the world via the Internet.

Newspaper accounts of the first Million were written on typewriters instead of computers. Websites didn't exist back then. Birds were the only tweeters.

Can 1981 and 30 Millions be that long ago? Apparently so, considering that was the year Jerry Reinsdorf bought the White Sox, Ryne Sandberg still was serving his first term in the Phillies' organization and Mike Ditka was a season from beginning to become an empire.

More than three decades, five U.S. presidents and too many wars later ... yes, the Arlington Million is still standing.

Not only that: This day at the races remains the suburbs' biggest annual sporting event. The Million has settled in nicely around here, televised by our very own WGN-TV rather than NBC or ESPN.

No longer is this America's richest thoroughbred race, which it started out being. It's just one of them. A million dollars isn't what it used to be anyway, but only the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup races offer bigger purses in the United States.

In a wireless world, the race to the wire in the Arlington Million still is something special amid Chicago sports.

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