What a history it's been for Arlington International Racecourse

  • Horses in the Bruce D. Memorial Stakes pass the grandstand at the Arlington International Racecourse in Arlington Heights Saturday.

      Horses in the Bruce D. Memorial Stakes pass the grandstand at the Arlington International Racecourse in Arlington Heights Saturday. John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 2/28/2021 5:48 PM

A sad day is coming for Arlington Heights.

When it arrives -- and Arlington International Racecourse is sold -- it will likely mark the end of thoroughbred racing in the village.

 

Churchill Downs Inc. has announced its intention to sell the venerable track, marketing the 326-acre facility as a "redevelopment opportunity."

Fans will have one more season to cheer -- and bet on -- their favorite horses and jockeys in a 68-date card from April 30 to Sept. 25.

With a seismic shift on the horizon for Arlington Heights and the region, let's look back on the track's rich history. It includes some of the biggest moments in horse racing -- not just in Illinois or the Midwest, but in the entire world.

And they're off!

Nearly 95 years ago, H.L. Curley Brown, who built tracks in New Orleans, Maryland and Florida, got a group of investors to form the American National Jockey Club. The club bought just over 1,000 acres in June 1927 and held its first race in front of 20,000 shivering spectators Oct. 13.

"My intention is to build for this city the most beautiful track in America," Brown said. "Every effort will be made to make the new plant not only the most accommodating from a physical standpoint, but the most scenic."

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Jockey Joe Bollero led the favorite, Luxembourg, to the first victory.

In the ensuing years, Arlington became an industry leader for innovation as the track:

• Ran turf races for the first time in Illinois history in 1934.

• Installed the first photo-finish camera in Chicago racing in 1936.

• Installed the first electric starting gate in Chicago racing in 1940.

• Became the first track to bank the turns on its turf track in 1941.

• Installed the largest closed-circuit color TV in all of sports in 1967.

• Introduced trifecta wagering in Chicago in 1971.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

A legend arrives

After capturing the 1973 Triple Crown -- winning the Belmont Stakes by an incredible 31 lengths -- Secretariat came to Arlington June 30 for the Arlington Invitational Stakes.

The striking stallion went up against just three other horses, running in front of a whopping 41,223. The track made only "win" betting available, and Secretariat went off at odds of 1 to 20.

He opened a three-length lead after a quarter mile and cruised to a nine-length victory in 1:47, just one-fifth of a second off the track record.

Bill Thayer, former general manager and senior vice president of racing, was instrumental in getting Secretariat to the track. He was authorized to offer a $100,000 purse -- and not a penny more. But when Helen Cherney, Secretariat's owner, said they'd come for $125,000, Thayer didn't hesitate.

"I said to myself, well, all he could do was fire me," Thayer said of Arlington Park President Jack Loome.

That didn't happen, and Thayer told Daily Herald reporter John Leusch it was one of the greatest days in Arlington Park history.

"The event still raised our attendance and handle 13 percent for the rest of the meet," said Thayer, who died at age 89 in 2015.

The Million

The first horse race to offer a $1 million purse came when Joe Joyce introduced the Arlington Million in 1981. The inaugural running offered a fantastic ending as jockey Bill Shoemaker rode John Henry to a come-from-behind victory over The Bart. As described in an ESPN.com article, John Henry "Came roaring up on the outside" to overtake the 40 to 1 long shot to win in a photo finish.

About half the Million's winners have included horses born in Ireland, Germany, Canada, France and Britain. Owners have hailed from Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Japan and Australia.

In 2015, the Pizza Man became the only Illinois-bred horse to win the event.

Beginning in 1997, Million Day included two other high-stakes races, the Beverly D. and the Secretariat.

The Million was graded after its second run and achieved Grade I status in 1983.

The race was forced to move to Toronto in 1988 and 1989 because of the 1985 fire, and the event wasn't held in 1998 or 1999 when Arlington was shut down.

The fire

At 2:15 a.m. July 31, 1985, the Arlington Heights Fire Department got an activated fire alarm from the track. In the minutes it took captain Chuck Kramer to get dressed and race out the door, the blaze had been deemed a five-alarm fire.

Firefighters from 21 departments converged upon the track, trying in vain for more than nine hours to extinguish the flames.

"It was the biggest fire I've ever seen," Kramer told the Daily Herald in 2015. "We would tear back a wall and chase down the flames, and there would be another wall with more flames behind it."

As the flames spread, spectators gawked from Route 53. Cars were damaged in Schaumburg. Future Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder said she could see smoke from an O'Hare Airport runway.

Firefighters fought and fought. But to no avail.

The effort was called off at 11:30 a.m. The situation became too dangerous.

"The guys didn't want to stop, but it was the right decision," Kramer said. "You can't lose people over that. Eventually a floor would drop and people would fall through and you have to live with that as chief officer."

About 90 minutes later the grandstand's roof collapsed.

"I'm sure the city of Chicago has had some larger-scales," former firefighter Glenn Ericksen told Daily Herald reporter Christopher Placek last July. "But the number of firefighters and companies that it took and the time it took to fight it and eventually have the outcome that it did, no, I haven't seen anything like that."

The fire began in the ceiling above the Horseman's Lounge.

Incredibly, just 25 days later, Arlington held the "Miracle Million." A crowd of 35,000 watched Great Britain's Teleprompter prevail over Greinton by less than a length.

Arlington was recognized with the Eclipse Award, the first given to a racetrack, for the effort it took to clear the debris and allow the Million to take place.

The track reopened June 20, 1989.

Big events/notables

• Richard Duchossois led an investment group to purchase the track in 1983. He bought out his partners in 1986.

• In 2000, Arlington Park merged with CDI.

• In 2002, Arlington hosted the Breeders' Cup.

• In 2007, Arlington installed Polytrack, becoming the fifth track in North America with a synthetic racing surface.

• Horses such as Citation, Secretariat, Cigar and John Henry have all raced at Arlington, along with jockeys Earlie Fires, Bill Shoemaker, Pat Day, Laffit Pincay Jr., Jerry Bailey and Eddie Arcaro.

• In 2010, Mount Prospect's Lee DeWyze performed in front of 41,369 two weeks before being named Season 9 "American Idol" champion.

• In 2013, the park was called Arlington International Racecourse, a name it held from 1989 to 2000.

• Research from arlingtonpark.com was used in this report.

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