Million Day in Arlington Heights: A glimpse behind the scenes and in the stands

 
 
Updated 8/12/2018 8:09 AM
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  • Contestants in the best-dressed contest line up for the judges Saturday at the 36th Arlington Million Day at Arlington Park in Arlington Heights.

      Contestants in the best-dressed contest line up for the judges Saturday at the 36th Arlington Million Day at Arlington Park in Arlington Heights. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. reaches to pat Robert Bruce after winning the 36th Arlington Million at Arlington Park in Arlington Heights Saturday.

      Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. reaches to pat Robert Bruce after winning the 36th Arlington Million at Arlington Park in Arlington Heights Saturday. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Jackson Vancurran, 7½, of Arlington Heights poses for the judges with other male contestants in the best-dressed contest at the 36th Arlington Million Day at Arlington Park in Arlington Heights Saturday. He won the male category.

      Jackson Vancurran, 7½, of Arlington Heights poses for the judges with other male contestants in the best-dressed contest at the 36th Arlington Million Day at Arlington Park in Arlington Heights Saturday. He won the male category. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Jim Cornelison sings the national anthem at the 36th Arlington Million Day at Arlington Park in Arlington Heights Saturday. He regularly sings at Chicago Blackhawks games.

      Jim Cornelison sings the national anthem at the 36th Arlington Million Day at Arlington Park in Arlington Heights Saturday. He regularly sings at Chicago Blackhawks games. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Race horses are paraded for the crowd in the paddock area before a race at the 36th Arlington Million Day at Arlington Park in Arlington Heights Saturday.

      Race horses are paraded for the crowd in the paddock area before a race at the 36th Arlington Million Day at Arlington Park in Arlington Heights Saturday. John Starks | Staff Photographer

For Robert Bruce, the Chilean-born horse who charged from the outside to win this year's 36th Arlington Million, Saturday was a day unlike any other.

The crowd swelled and excitement mounted as the start time neared for the penultimate -- and most famous -- race on the Arlington Park International Festival of Racing card.

Some fans watched the race indoors on strategically placed television monitors. Others stood on balconies outside the upper-level suites, and many more crowded onto the grandstand eager to be as close to the action as possible.

For Robert Bruce, it was showtime. But for Kelly, a chestnut-colored former racehorse, and his outrider Alan Love, Million Day was much like any other at Arlington Park.

Ten hours earlier, Love sat atop the 12-year-old Kelly, scanning the track where riders exercised the thoroughbreds. While some went on to compete just a few hours later, most were training for upcoming events.

"They're keeping them fit," explained Love, a 16-year veteran whose job is to ensure the safety of equine and human participants and to retrieve any horse who attempts to run off.

Several horses, breathing heavily, ran neck-and-neck along the rail as part of time trials designed to assess their readiness for an upcoming race, Love said. Others trotted leisurely.

Up on the fifth floor, the leather chairs were arranged in cozy groupings, the tables set and silver bowls filled with pretzels, popcorn and peanuts (covered in plastic wrap until patrons arrived), awaiting the arrival of 400 guests who occupied the exclusive penthouse suites on Million Day.

At 8 a.m., the racecourse's public areas were nearly deserted. It was quiet except for "good mornings" murmured by employees and the conversations of observers like Ben Allen, a jockey's agent from Palatine.

"It's the biggest day. The longest day. It attracts the most people," Allen said of Million Day. "It's the grandest day of all."

Inaugurated in 1981, the Chicago area's premier horse racing event was the first to offer a $1 million purse. While purses from races like the Breeders Cup, the Dubai World Cup and the Pegasus World Cup Invitational in Florida have eclipsed The Million, it remains a favorite among racing aficionados.

The Million and the other races on the card retain their prestige for reasons that go beyond nostalgia, said Patti Miller, a racehorse owner from Palatine.

"The Beverly D is a top race for fillies," she said. "(For fillies) it might be as important as the Million."

Several hours later, the throngs descended. Some dressed casually. Others wore silk and chiffon.

Among them was Brooke Bartos of Buffalo Grove, and her daughter Avery, nearly 2, who sported a blue polka-dot hat with a large sunflower.

"I've always had a dream of going to the Kentucky Derby," said Bartos, who competed with her daughter in the Million's best-dressed contest. "This is the closest we can get."

Upstairs in the Million Room, Lake Barrington resident and horse owner Chandra Elgin, her husband, Howard Tyska, and their friend Terry Cushman looked over racing programs and printouts.

"It's wonderful to see horses from Europe and other locations," said Elgin, who marked her 16th Million.

"And it's a way to make money," her husband said.

Elgin favored longshot Circus Couture, whom she described as "just gorgeous" after spotting him on the track early Saturday.

"We love the horses. They're so noble," she said. "In the partnership between man and horse, they're the better partner."

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