With Million race, Arlington showcases itself to the world
Dick Duchossois and other Arlington Park executives decided to host thoroughbred horse racing's first million dollar turf race in 1981 -- a new concept at the time that helped put Arlington on the world map.
With its 35th running early Saturday evening, the Arlington Million maintained its status as an international event, from the horses in the race to the attendees, who came from as far as Australia.
Officials estimate more than 33,000 filled the grandstand, party areas and VIP skyboxes at the Arlington Heights racetrack. The race was also broadcast in some 100 countries.
"It's a wonderful day just to see all the people," said Duchossois, the 95-year-old chairman of the racetrack. "But it showcases Arlington Heights and racing to the rest of the world. It helps bring everything together. That's why we built (the racetrack) in the first place."
Yes, Duchossois admits, there are challenges for Arlington and the Illinois horse racing industry. He and other Arlington officials have long lobbied state leaders for slots and table games at the track, amid shrinking purses for winners and the difficulty to compete with tracks out of state.
But on Saturday, Duchossois was remaining optimistic, and hopeful for many more Arlington Million days.
"We hope this continues at least as long as I'm alive and well after that," he said from the upstairs Turf Club, which hosted dignitaries for a cocktail reception and lunch. "Things are starting to go on the upbeat. When you look at the crowd out there and all the circumstances that surround us, it's bound to have to come together.
"It's just economically unsound for the state to let this industry go down."
During opening ceremonies earlier in the afternoon, Duchossois and his wife Judi were joined by Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes and his wife Sue in escorting the Arlington Million trophy and Chicago Cubs World Series trophy to the winner's circle. They waived to spectators in the grandstand from a flatbed pulled by a village public works truck.
Hayes, a longtime Cubs fan, said it was his first time seeing the trophy up close.
Todd Ricketts, co-owner and board member of the Cubs, brought the trophy to Arlington Saturday at Duchossois' request. Both serve on the board for The National WWII Museum in New Orleans.
Since the Cubs won last November, the trophy has clocked nearly 40,000 miles, traveling as far as Nebraska and Washington, D.C.
"It's been a really fun trip," Ricketts said. "I think the fact that so many fans are coming out wanting to see it -- it just shows how great of a sports town Chicago is and how everybody feels involved and connected to the Cubs."
Attendees at Million Day came early, betting on the day's other races that started after noon, listening to a live band in the track's beer garden, and mingling in party tents and suites. Many also came dressed for the occasion in suits, dresses and hats, some of them participating in a best-dressed competition.
Jill Byrne, a senior director of industry relations for the Breeder's Cup horse racing series, visits many tracks throughout the year in the lead-up to the final race in November. She always enjoys the Million because of its mix of horse racing, fashion and entertainment.
"You can come to a venue like Arlington all dressed up, or bring your family and have a picnic. There's nothing like it," Byrne said. "Arlington is such a great fit. It's an international mecca for horse racing."