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updated: 8/16/2015 12:56 PM

Rain or shine, fans love Arlington Million

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  • Video: the Arlington Million

  • A storm cloud moves over the grandstand before a heavy rain shower Saturday during Arlington International Festival of Racing.

      A storm cloud moves over the grandstand before a heavy rain shower Saturday during Arlington International Festival of Racing.
    Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

  • Racing fans view the paddock from above Saturday during Arlington International Festival of Racing.

      Racing fans view the paddock from above Saturday during Arlington International Festival of Racing.
    Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

  • Fans check their programs as horses enter the paddock Saturday during Arlington International Festival of Racing.

      Fans check their programs as horses enter the paddock Saturday during Arlington International Festival of Racing.
    Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

  • Fans line the rail Saturday during Arlington International Festival of Racing.

      Fans line the rail Saturday during Arlington International Festival of Racing.
    Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

 

Fire couldn't stop the Arlington Million 30 years ago and rain couldn't stop it on Saturday, as thousands of fans waited through a downpour and cheered as the sun came out just before the big race.

Fans at Arlington Park endured both heat and rain, but the crowds who stayed until the end of the day were rewarded with a local win when The Pizza Man became the first horse bred in Illinois to win the Arlington Million.

The day of racing brought more than 30,000 racing enthusiasts to the track including some who were new to the sport and others who have been following it for years.

"I've been here every weekend for 30 years," said Ben Graetz of Schaumburg.

That includes the "Miracle Million," which was run just weeks after a devastating fire destroyed Arlington Park in 1985.

Graetz said he remembers watching the old racetrack burn and "crying like a baby." Since then he's honored his favorite suburban spot with a tattoo of the Arlington Park logo on his arm.

"This is the greatest sport in the world," he said.

Richard Duchossois and local politicians agreed, honoring the 30th anniversary of the fire and the 33rd running of the "Miracle Million" earlier in the day.

Others may have been newer to the sport but enjoyed the day of festivities just the same.

Many came to Arlington Park on Saturday for the experience: the crowds packed with women in fashionable dresses, men in their best suits and children awed by the horses on the track and in the winner's circle.

"And it's an excuse to wear an awesome hat," said Erin Wilkerson of Gurnee, who had never bet on horse racing before Saturday.

She spent $5 and won back $74. Her plans for the big winnings:

"Make more bets and buy more drinks, she said.

Jenny Figiel and Christy Cudzewicz, of Arlington Heights and Wheaton, respectively, were at the track for a bachelorette party but decided to stay even after the bride left.

"It's a lot of fun. We're learning a lot about horse racing," Cudzewicz said. "It's been cool to see such a big racing event."

"We want to come back all the time now," Figiel said.

People crowded into the grandstand early in the afternoon to escape the heat, but as clouds moved in around 4 p.m., it became a shelter from the pouring rain.

But, the rain didn't stop the fans, or the racing.

Two of the major races of the day -- Secretariat Stakes and Beverly D -- were run in the pouring rain.

Most fans, though, never even thought about leaving.

"No way," said Pat Hoyos of Lindenhurst. "This is fantastic. People are going to stay until the last race unless we can't."

After a hot, sunny afternoon with temperatures reaching into the 90s, most welcomed the rain.

"It felt good. Of course we're going to stay," said Sue Hickenlooper of Algonquin.

"Actual fans, the people who really love horse racing, don't care about a little rain," said her daughter Amber Hickenlooper, of Hampshire.

Cathie Zimmerman of Darien said she has been coming to Arlington Park for 60 years and wasn't going to let a little rain chase her away.

"It was refreshing," she said.

While most fans ran for cover under the grandstand roof during the downpour, some stuck it out under umbrellas or just chose to get wet.

Cindy Marz of Montgomery ran back out in the rain to hear Jim Cornelison sing the national anthem just before the Secretariat Stakes post time.

The rain pounded even harder during Cornelison's rendition of the "Star-Spangled Banner," but he was met with a rumble of both applause and thunder as he reached the end.

"It's Jim Cornelison. You can't miss that," Marz said. "You never get to be this close to him at a hockey game. I'm still having fun, why not."

Through more than 90 minutes of rain, kids kept splashing in the rain puddles, bars kept serving drinks and horses kept racing. Fifteen minutes before post time for the Arlington Million, the clouds parted and the sun came out, as did the fans with their hats, sunglasses and cheers that only grew louder as the horses neared the finish line.

"This is my favorite summer event," said Beth Murphy of Grayslake. "It is the best people watching ever. The horses are beautiful. The park is beautiful. You can't beat it."

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