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updated: 8/22/2012 4:14 PM

Arlington Park overcomes obstacles to survive

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  • Arlington Park as it looked about 1930.

    Arlington Park as it looked about 1930.
    Courtesy Arlington Heights Historical Museum

  • Arlington Hts. quasquicentennial logo

    Arlington Hts. quasquicentennial logo

  • With tents and bleachers as the only structures, 35,000 horse racing fans attended the "Miracle Million" at Arlington Park just weeks after a fire burned the facility to the ground.

    With tents and bleachers as the only structures, 35,000 horse racing fans attended the "Miracle Million" at Arlington Park just weeks after a fire burned the facility to the ground.
    Daily Herald File Photo

By Gerry Souter
Special to the Daily Herald

Lucky Lindy flew the Atlantic solo in 1927. Prohibition was pouring millions of dollars into what was rapidly becoming organized crime. And out in the middle of Illinois farmland, promoter Curley Brown counted his pennies and discovered he had managed to lose $100,000 of investor money.

In 1927, Arlington Park Race Track had a great first year, but had not paid its bills. Now, two hoodlums from Chicago wanted to own half of Curley's hard work. It looked like a bum year for Curley.

Frankie Lake and Tommy Druggan headed the only Irish mob to throw in with Al Capone and were rewarded with the Northwest suburbs as their turf. They controlled gambling, slot machines, punchboards, loan sharking and booze.

Druggan was a horseplayer and owned a nag named Columbia II who could not find his way out of his own stall let alone around a racetrack.

@$ID/NormalParagraphStyle:1 Jonathan Eig, Get Capone, Simon & Schuster, 2010

Nevertheless, the terrible twins peered out at the world though round black-rimmed spectacles and wanted a piece of upper crust action of the Gold Coast investors Brown had bled for the startup dollars

@$ID/NormalParagraphStyle:2 Mark Jacob and Richard Cahan, Chicago Under Glass, University of Chicago Press, 2007. They tried every form of intimidation without success. So, if they were frozen out, the race rack would have to say goodbye.

At 3 a.m. on the day that the final sale papers were to be signed, a black Lincoln sedan rolled down Euclid Avenue and up to the Arlington Park entrance. Four doors swung open and shadow figures rushed the gate.

Stealth was abandoned in a hail of bullets aimed at the gate's lock. A park security guard in the shadows opened fire at the gun flashes. Ricocheting slugs caroming off iron and cement in this furious fusillade were too much, and the gunmen backed out onto Euclid and fled

@$ID/NormalParagraphStyle:3 Tom Gaughan, Chronicle of a Prairie Town, !997, Arlington Heights Historical Society.

The Great Depression arrived in 1929 and Arlington Park continued its program. Owners and jockeys arrived, needing rented rooms in private homes. Residents found jobs at the track in maintenance and repairs while vendors provided amenities for the racing crowd that showed up every week, spilling out of special racetrack trains.

As Illinois racing struggled, Arlington Park always managed to come back, keeping its tradition alive. And then on July 31, 1985, the track virtually burned to the ground.

Faced with the upcoming Arlington-Budweiser Million Race that year, hundreds of workers and the Arlington Heights community pitched in. Beneath the spreads of red and white canvas, just weeks later on Aug. 25, thoroughbred horses once again answered the call to the post

@$ID/NormalParagraphStyle:4 Tom Gaughan, Chronicle of a Prairie Town.

Over the years, Arlington International Raceway has faced many challenges, renewed and rebuilt itself, drawing horses and owners from all parts of the world to the oval in Arlington Heights. It continues to face challenges, but really, what are the odds?

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