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posted: 8/17/2012 10:19 PM

Arlington Million: Will No. 7 be lucky for Willcox Inn?

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  • Willcox Inn exits the track after completing a morning workout Friday on the eve of the Arlington Million at Arlington Park.

       Willcox Inn exits the track after completing a morning workout Friday on the eve of the Arlington Million at Arlington Park.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

  • Mike Stidham, trainer of Willcox Inn, watches his horse work out on the track first thing Thursday morning in preparation for the Arlington Million.

       Mike Stidham, trainer of Willcox Inn, watches his horse work out on the track first thing Thursday morning in preparation for the Arlington Million.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

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As Million owner Al Lepinski was on his way to Wednesday's Arlington Million post-position draw in Chicago, he happened to mention a number to nephews Gabe and Oliver.

"I told them that getting post No. 7 would be a good thing because their grandfather's favorite color for turf racing was orange," Lepinski said.

Orange is the color for the No. 7 saddle cloth.

Sure enough, guess who drew the No. 7 post?

Lepinski's Willcox Inn, co-owned by a partnership of more than 10 owners, will start his course from that post in Arlington's 1-miles turf showcase Saturday.

Among the partnership is Al's brother Ron and their longtime friend Marty Nixon. All three are graduates of St. Viator High School who entered the business 12 years ago with a claiming horse by the name of Tindell.

Saturday, their claim to fame becomes the chance to compete on Arlington's biggest stage, in the biggest race on the International Festival of Racing card.

"One of the reasons you get into horse racing is to run in the biggest race," Lepinski said. "To see it come true is a dream come true. It's like making the Super Bowl. It's unbelievable."

All the owners probably would call a victory Saturday unbelievable as Willcox Inn is slated at 12-1 in the morning line. The son of Harlan's Holiday won the first two legs of the Mid-America triple last summer before finishing fourth in the Secretariat.

Lepinski has been at the barn every morning this summer and watched every one of the 4-year-old colt's workouts.

"I've watched him grow this summer," said the 1980 Viator grad, who grew up in Des Plaines and lives in Glen Ellyn. "He's matured, and we are hoping that maturity continues and he improves for a nice run and that he shows he's a stakes horse."

A top stakes horse is hardly a novelty to a couple of other partners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson. who bought a percent of Willcox Inn a year ago.

Their Lael Stable housed 2006 Kentucky Derby champ Barbaro, who became a national story when he had to be euthanized in January 2007 after fracturing his right hind leg a few strides out of the gate in the Preakness.

"I am looking forward to meeting them (Jacksons)," Al Lepinski said. "It will be a pleasure to see them, and I'm looking forward to it."

The Lepinskis and Nixon are part of the original ownership of Willcox Inn, called the All In Stable, which also includes bloodstock agent Marette Farrell.

Farrell, along with trainer Mike Stidham's assistant Hilary Pridham, helped picked out Willcox Inn, who is named after a hotel in Aiken, S.C. That's where the horse was raised before being bought in a sale for $70,000.

The Lepinskis and Nixon began in the sport as Three Kings Stable.

They started with $60,000 in 2000.

Each threw in $20,000 and claimed Tindell for $35,000 for the late trainer Gene Cilio.

"He ran eighth, sixth and then won for us and got claimed that day for $50,000," Al Lepinski said. "So we hit a home run right away.

"When Gene passed away we hooked up with Mike. We went down to New Orleans for an interview with him. We bought Extra Check privately through Mike in 2001 and have been with him for the last 11 years."

The Lepinskis got their start by going to Arlington Park with their father Al Sr., nicknamed "Robe" in the 1970s.

"We liked to bet and watch the races, and we learned a lot going with our father," Al said. "Once we got to know everything, we thought maybe one day we'd get a horse.

"Right now this is about the legacy of all of our fathers -- our father, Marty's (Mickey Nixon) and our trainer Mike Stidham's (George)," Al Lepinski said. "None of our fathers is around today, but for me this is a great tribute to them having our horse run in this race.

"Our horse is performing for them. We would not be where we are without our fathers. They were great influences on us, and we hope to continue their legacy for introducing our to horse to racing."

Nixon, who grew up in Palatine, has been to every Million run at Arlington.

"To have a horse in the race is really a dream come true," he said. "I can't believe it."

Stidham believes owners like Ron and Al Lepinski and Nixon are great for the sport.

"They're great for racing; they love the action," Stidham said. "They support racing day in and day out at Arlington Park and even when we go to the Fair Grounds in the winter. So to get in a race like this for them, it's extra special."

Stidham, looking for his first Grade I stakes win at Arlington, knows the Million is one of the toughest races to win considering horses come from all over the world each year.

"Even though it is a tough spot, it is easier to run out of your own stable and not have to ship," he said. "And our horse is running on a turf where he is comfortable.

"It's a nice spot to be in, and a nice horse will put you in this spot."

It's Super Bowl time for some local owners.

"It's awesome," Al Lepinski said. "Hard to believe."

Maybe No. 7 will be unbelievable today.

After all, the No. 7 post has won the most Millions (six) in the race's 29-year history.

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