Jim O'Donnell: Arlington Million Day media gets parting gift -- Petrillo throws all out of press box
FOR DECADES, DICK DUCHOSSOIS saw to it that at the conclusion of Million Day, most working media received a gracious memento for their toil.
Early Saturday evening at Arlington Park, track president Anthony Petrillo delivered a very different sort of parting gift.
Petrillo -- bolstered by track security guards -- had everyone suddenly tossed out of the press box.
The stunning move forced nine credentialed members of the racing media on deadlines -- five writers and four photographers -- to scramble for alternative sites to file.
All were in place to report on what quite possibly was the last day of Grade I racing at the Arlington Heights oval.
The action happened less than 90 minutes after ceremonies attendant to the conclusion of the day's centerpiece -- the $600,000 Mr. D. Stakes, a more budget-conscious version of the historic Million.
PETRILLO'S ARBITRARY MANEUVER is believed to be unprecedented in the history of Chicago sport and media.
Normally, major league press boxes -- even during the NBA Finals nights of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls -- remain open until the last media member is done with their work.
"I've certainly never seen or heard of anything like it," said Marcus Hersh of The Daily Racing Form -- one of the most respected turf writers in North America.
"Tony was upset about something. Some of us tried to reason with him, to no avail. I had Ubered to the track for the day, so I had little option but to text my desk, pack up and walk across the parking lot to file at Jimmy D's. Thankfully they have Wi-Fi there."
CATCHING THE WORST OF IT was Jamie Newell, a seasoned racetrack photographer from Lexington, Ky.
Petrillo, according to Newell and others, approached her on the upper deck of the press box, demanded her credential back and told her she was "banned for life" from Arlington Park.
"I was shaken and stunned," said Newell, who was shooting her 12th Million Day at Arlington Park. "I have worked with many people from Churchill Downs (Inc.) over the years and they are extraordinarily decent and professional people. This incident was absurd."
Petrillo did not return messages from The Daily Herald seeking comment.
HIS ANGER WAS APPARENTLY piqued earlier in the day, prior to the running of the three Grade I's -- The Bev D. ($400,000), followed by The Bruce D. ($300,000) and The Mr. D.
Newell and colleagues Ryan Thompson and Nicole Thomas were en route to their normal photo positions near the finish line of the AP turf course for the Grade III Pucker Up Stakes.
"We've all done this before so it was very common, really a test run to make sure all of our equipment was working, especially the remote cameras on the outside," Thompson said.
"Suddenly, Tony started yelling at us from near the winner's circle, saying we couldn't shoot from inside the inner rail. He let Jamie go, because she was shooting for Twin Spires (CDI's advance deposit wagering arm) and she apparently asked him why the others couldn't follow the regular routine.
"In the end what he did was so disrespectful. 'Mr. D' has always been such a consummate gentleman. And then to have his grand day end with such an embarrassing display of anger and lack of control."
THERE HAD BEEN HINTS before Saturday's climactic fiasco that there were significant cracks in the track's media relations this season.
CDI/AP managers -- all ultimately answering to CEO Bill Carstanjen of Louisville HQ -- elected not to fund the position of media relations director this summer, even on a seasonal basis.
For "Mr. D Day," Petrillo and staff retained a boutique Chicago PR firm that displayed very little knowledge of thoroughbred racing protocols. Inquiring media were told Petrillo and surviving Arlington VP Ken Kiehn were handling credential requests.
On Saturday, despite the comparative import of the afternoon, Petrillo had no staffer gatekeeping at the entrance desk to the press box. There were no refreshments of any kind and the refrigerator on the lower deck of the media enclave had nothing in it -- not even bottled water.
Said Newell: "I was at Arlington at 4:45 Friday morning to get some great commemorative photos of an incredible racetrack. I was in the press box a few hours later and noticed there was nothing on the lower deck. I honestly was going to go buy a couple of 12-packs of water to bring up for myself and colleagues on Saturday because a major day of racing like that can be such an exhausting and dehydrating sort of work day."
Instead, by nightfall, she and astounded fellow professionals were getting a flared-nostril preview of the new Arlington skiddoo.
• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.