From starting gate to finish line, how we have chronicled Arlington Park over the years
How the Herald chronicled Arlington Park over the years
Headline writers were bold, and perhaps prophetic, in the all-caps type across three columns of the front page of the Oct. 14, 1927, Arlington Heights Herald: "America's Greatest Race Course Open."
The account of the inaugural meeting at Arlington Park the day before -- bylined by T.C. Hart -- was equally prescient in describing what the grand racing palace not far from the offices of publisher H.C. Paddock & Sons would become over the next century.
Betting areas "going full blast," Hart wrote, with ladies and men pouring over "dope sheets" and newspaper selections in an effort to pick the winners.
Crowds grew as the afternoon went on, and restaurants did great business all day.
A clubhouse well-populated with society folk, but also plenty of regular horseplayers in and around the grandstand.
"The crowd, which attended the opening of America's greatest race track, was a cosmopolitan crowd in all respects. Business men and professional men from all walks of life rubbed elbows with the regular race track followers and horsemen in the democratic opening of this great race course," Hart wrote.
And so began this newspaper's relationship with the local oval, from its auspicious opening to its eventual decline and closure a year ago.
Ink-stained pages of the Daily Herald and its predecessor publications would cover Arlington's 94-year race from the starting gate to the finish line -- both on and off the track, in News and Sports -- as sporting venue, tourist destination, suburban business and major employer.
Yes, that meant racing handicaps and recaps at a time when the sport of kings was truly king.
But it also meant capturing the pageantry surrounding the race day in words and images -- the Million Day fashion contests, Fourth of July fireworks and other spectacles.
Doug Ray, a Herald reporter in 1973, was assigned one of those color stories when the great Secretariat came to town that summer. Ray rose through the newsroom and corporate ranks to become the company's chief executive officer, chairman and publisher.
" ... Saturday was super -- the superhorse, the supertrack, the superday, with the sun splashing a glare over the race course. It was all there, and 41,223 paid to get inside the gates of the race track," Ray wrote in his July 2, 1973, splash on Page 1. "What they came to see was Secretariat, the big, red chestnut colt, with three white stockings, star on his head and blinkers over his forehead to keep his eyes off the crowd that would smash together by the rail to get a glimpse of him."
The Herald -- known as a newspaper with high quality photojournalism and for displaying pictures prominently -- assigned three staff photographers to shoot the images that would accompany Ray's piece.
Color photography in newspapers was still in its infancy, and Secretariat's visit was going to be a big opportunity to present pictures in full color on the pages of the Herald, Ray recalled.
"What happened next is amusing now -- but not so much on Secretariat Day. Somehow -- and it is hard to believe -- the color film was corrupted. Black and white photos were the only images we had," Ray said.
As a remembrance, Ray kept a framed black-and-white Herald photo from that day -- jockey Ron Turcotte in the saddle of winner Secretariat -- and displayed it prominently on his office wall for years.
Indeed, there would be stumbling blocks in both the newspaper and racecourse's histories, but the two Arlington Heights institutions almost seemed to run on parallel paths in their growth and success.
Ray Hallett, a Schaumburg schoolteacher who worked as a summer security guard at Arlington Park in the late 1970s, wrote to sports editors Bob Frisk and Jim Cook about expanding the paper's coverage of horse racing.
The paper was growing and had just launched a Saturday edition, and, Hallett told them, "You've got one of the most important racetracks at your doorstep."
Hallett would pick up a racing form off the floor every night at the end of his shift, and take it home to learn how to handicap the horses. Frisk and Cook decided to give the 29-year-old amateur handicapper a try when they hired him in 1977.
And so The Bottom Line -- Hallett's near-daily wagering picks and tips of the Arlington summer race meets -- became one of the most well-read and popular columns in the sports pages over the next two decades.
Hallett developed a following -- maybe because he proved to be reliable amid a winning record for seven consecutive years -- so much so that he'd sneak into the track between the first and second races every day so he wouldn't be swarmed by bettors.
"First, they want an autograph. Second, they want to know, 'You got a horse for me?' " said Hallett, now retired from professional handicapping and teaching. "We outsold the Tribune and the Sun-Times. A lot of nights I'd walk out, I'd do a count -- what's on the floor -- and half the papers out there were always the Daily Herald."
This was the era of newspapering -- and horse racing -- when the press box at Arlington was full: handicappers, sports writers and columnists to cover the races both big and small. The Daily Herald, Tribune, Sun-Times, Daily News, Daily Racing Form and Associated Press were mainstays.
Though competitors, everyone got along and became like family, Hallett said.
"The two things to really love about the press box at Arlington was there was a popcorn machine and an open fridge," he said.
During the height of Arlington's racing season, the daily Sports section would have Hallett's picks, results and feature stories and sidebars of horse racing notes most often penned by Jim O'Donnell and John Leusch.
The paper made a big splash for the first Arlington Million in 1981, with a special section on race day profiling the horses and jockeys. The next-day's paper featured a slew of coverage: the main story by Gordon Walek with Dave Tonge's centerpiece photo atop the starting gate, an accompanying Page 1 piece on the high-rollers who attended, photo spreads and sidebars on the inside news pages, analysis in the sports section with a quote rail from all 12 jockeys who rode the race, and Mike Imrem's column on jockey Bill Shoemaker, who was aboard winning horse John Henry.
The Herald's coverage was just as comprehensive when breaking news hit Arlington Park on July 31, 1985. "Fire ravages race track" was the headline above the front page photo depicting the blazing grandstand, in what was the biggest suburban fire then, or since.
It was all hands on deck as reporters and photographers were dispatched to the scene to gather what they could and return to the newsroom just a few miles away in downtown Arlington Heights to produce a dozen or so stories spread across News and Sports.
Only 25 days later -- after 7,000 tons of melted, blackened steel were torn down and hauled away, and temporary tents and wooden bleachers were erected -- the Herald published another souvenir section, "The Miracle Million," on the day the race went on.
Extra copies were sold for 50 cents each at the Daily Herald's offices.
It was around that time the Herald started covering in earnest the colorful and charismatic billionaire Richard Duchossois, who shepherded the massive miracle effort. In the years that followed, the paper chronicled his taking full ownership of the racecourse, pouring millions into construction of a new six-story grandstand, and the reopening and transformation of the venue into a family-friendly entertainment destination.
There was also plenty of business and politics to cover -- the magnate's battles with Springfield politicians, his temporary closure of the track in the late 1990s, and its reopening upon a merger with Churchill Downs Inc.
When Duchossois died at age 100 in January, the Daily Herald website put up a photo gallery of more than 30 images of the man through the years.
Many of those were shot by Mark Welsh, who joined the paper in 1987 just as the stately grandstand was being built. Welsh, who just retired this summer, was dispatched to many an assignment at Arlington Park over his career.
One was to spend the day with Duchossois in and around the track getting environmental portraits for the photo archive.
He was extremely nice and gracious, and exuded royalty, Welsh said.
"The thing of it was after that I would run into him from time to time as we both floated around the track doing whatever, and he would always say, 'Hi Mark,' " Welsh said. "Amazing that he would remember my name. He was truly royal."
During the Churchill Downs era, the paper covered the debates over slots and table games, the state's rejection and eventual approval of that gambling expansion, the corporate decision not to pursue it, and the eventual closure of the racecourse and pending sale of the 326 acres to the Chicago Bears.
And yes, on the occasion of the final season in 2021, the newspaper published another special section -- more news clippings demonstrating the depth and breadth of coverage over the years.
The story recapping Arlington Park's last day of racing Sept. 25, 2021, read like an obituary. "Today's the funeral," longtime mutuel clerk Marlene Brown said. The lede hearkened back to the fall afternoon nearly 94 years before, when thousands gathered for the first race at the new track along the railroad line in Arlington Heights.
It was, founder Harry D. "Curly" Brown told the press at the time, "the most beautiful track in America."