Jim O'Donnell: Petrillo's improbable history of the Arlington Million leaves 'em laughing

Updated 7/22/2021 10:29 AM

THREE OF THE GREAT LAUNCH POINTS influencing much comedic anarchy eventually produced by the Baby Boomer generation were "MAD" magazine, any live TV that Steve Allen did and "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show."

A staple on "Rocky" was "Peabody's Improbable History."


That was the segment in which Mr. Peabody, a genius talking dog, took "his boy Sherman" back through "The WABAC Machine" ("wayback") to satirically rearrange historical events.

Much more often than not, the bit was howlingly funny.

Anthony Petrillo -- still holding on as general manager of the fading Arlington Park and a regional vice president of Churchill Downs Inc. -- left 'em spit-taking this week with his wacky "WABAC" recall of the history of the Arlington Million.

In a retrospective on the once-grand race -- which will not be contested this year -- Petrillo solemnly said:

"It really developed from Joe Joyce, Robin Sheldon (sic), Ralph Ross and Mr. (Dick) Duchossois. They wanted to put Arlington on the map. So, this race was developed, and it was the first million-dollar race in the country."

A commanding, self-confident statement that leaves the more informed with no doubt that Petrillo should be back helping out with maintenance and flower planting at the listing local oval.

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SOME INCONVENIENT FACTS for CDI's preeminent Chicago racetrack representative:

•The inaugural Arlington Million was held in 1981;

•"Robin Sheldon" may have been a pleasant boyhood memory of Petrillo's, like Citizen Kane's "Rosebud." But it was Sheldon Robbins who was an incredibly efficient COO at Arlington through two terms (1975-81 and 1983-86);

•The Joyce-Robbins-Duchossois-Ross consortium purchased AP from Gulf & Western in August 1983. The first Million under their complete operational control didn't take place until a year later, when the brilliant 9-year-old gelding John Henry two-peated in Million IV;

•The core concept for the Million was fathered by Joyce and Daily Racing Form columnist Joe Hirsch in 1979-80. At the time, both Duchossois and Ross were private citizens with no stake whatsoever in the ownership of Arlington -- Joyce and Robbins were contracted executives with Gulf & Western;

•If Joyce and Hirsch were "the fathers" of The Arlington Million, the racing blue blood Whitney Tower was its greatest uncle. The longtime "turf editor" of Sports Illustrated became absolutely essential to its instant global impact when he was hired as "director" of the inaugural Million in the winter of 1980-81;


•The first "million-dollar race in the country" was, in fact, The All-American Futurity at New Mexico's Ruidoso Downs. The quarter-horse classic was first contested for $1M in 1978 and by 1982, carried a purse of $2M.

SO, OTHER THAN THAT, Petrillo was perfect in his "WABAC" summation of how The Arlington Million was born.


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• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at jimodonnelldh@yahoo.com.

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