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Racing group uses Million to draw Millennials to the track

For Lauren Beecher, it was all about the hat.

"If I can wear a hat, I'm there," said Beecher, 29, of Carol Stream, recounting her reaction when a friend suggested they head to Arlington International Racecourse for the 31st running of the Arlington Million.

So sporting a floppy sun hat that matched her sundress and sipping a fruity cocktail in a collector's glass, Beecher took in the sights and sounds at the track with Nicole Charleton, 27, of Chicago, and Jessie Ellison, 23, of Arlington Heights. Beecher, a racing rookie, was looking to Charleton to teach her the system.

"I like to think I can bet. I grew up coming here," Charleton said, recalling Mother's Day of her youth spent at the track. "This is my third time here this year. For girls, it (the Million) is an excuse to dress up."

Yet to hear John F. Cox talk, these young women are an anomaly.

Cox, 25, of Lexington, Ky., is a brand ambassador for America's Best Racing, a group hoping to turn the adult Millennials - 21- to 33-year-olds - into horse racing fans. Sporting Ray Bans, a navy suit and a day's growth of facial hair, Cox commanded a crew passing out T-shirts and can cozies and explained the ABCs of reading a program and placing a wager to those who didn't have a friend like Charleton to show them the ropes.

"We don't want people to be intimidated by looking at the program," Cox said, referring to the swirl of numbers that designate, among other things, the horse's post number, last race won and the jockey's weight.

Cox cited a recent study that indicated horse racing was losing fans at a rate of 4 percent a year. The horse racing crowd is skewing older because of "a failure to innovate."

To that end, Cox says he wants Millennials to have a different experience - one that goes beyond the horses and the betting.

"We want to get them to experience the social scene of it," he said. "The fashion, drinking, eating, people watching, gambling all add up to a really fun day."

And on Saturday, there was evidence that racing - at least the Million - isn't lost on the younger generation.

Kevin Kahler, 25, of Arlington Heights, remembers trips to the track when he was younger and "seeing a lot of old people."

This year, he said, it's been different. He said he's been to Arlington several times this year and celebrated the Fourth of July there with a big group of friends.

"It's a beautiful day, and we were looking for something different to do," Kahler said Saturday. "I have other friends who would have been here, but they're broke."

And from the paddock to the grand stand, it was clear that the Million had attracted a diverse crowd: Pregnant women pushing strollers shared the walkways with electric wheelchairs and guys wearing flip flops and hoisting plastic mugs of beer sat alongside fedora-wearing men drinking vodka-spiked lemonade. Dads carrying trays of Italian beef sandwiches made their way to the picnic area, while upstairs in The Million Room well-dressed high rollers noshed on steak frites.

Looking around, Cox said he felt good about the group's effort.

"We've had a good response," he said. "It's definitely shaping up to be a good day."

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  America‚Äôs Best Racing ambassadors Nikki Huber of Schaumburg, center, and Vanessa Ceron of Elgin greet Diana Kynard of Waukegan at the Arlington International Festival of Racing Saturday at Arlington International Racecourse. Bob Chwedyk/bchwedyk@dailyherald.com
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