Jim O'Donnell: Daily Herald's memorable Ray Hallett with a final 'Botton Line' on Arlington Park
ONCE IN A FADING TURF MOON, there's no point in getting in the way of the words of an insightful man.
That's the view this Labor Day weekend as Ray Hallett draws back some tales and perspectives regarding Arlington Park.
Hallett was The Daily Herald's thoroughbred race selector from 1977-98. He also taught history at Robert Frost Junior High School in Schaumburg for 43 years prior to his retirement in 2013.
Bob Frisk and Jim Cook hired him. Frisk tagged his daily mythical bets "The Bottom Line." It proved to be one of the most entertaining regular snippets in the history of the newspaper.
In The Daily Herald, Hallett opened each Arlington season with a make-believe bankroll of $2,000.
In real life, wife Janice Hallett -- his hometown sweetheart from Seymour, Ind. -- started him out every year with a princely $20.
FROM HIS TRACKSIDE TROVE, Ray Hallett on Arlington Park:
"Arlington is doomed. I somehow can't quite believe that it's actually going to happen. During my 47 years of association with Illinois racing, the track was always on the cusp of closing for good. I can't help thinking of the little boy who cried 'wolf.'
"Maybe this time is real. If it does close, there is plenty of blame to go around.
"Blame it on the politicians in Springfield that never cared, didn't understand what was at stake, or perhaps were overly influenced by outside influences. It doesn't take a genius to figure out who those might be."
"Blame it on mismanagement. There has been plenty of that over the years.
"Blame it on societal changes and attitudes. In general, there's always been a disconnect between the mainstream public and horses. The learning curve for racing fans is too steep.
"There are too many racetracks in the era of full-card simulcasting. It's the adage -- 'The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.' In racing, the poor end up closing their doors.
"I really don't care anymore."
ABOUT THAT FORCE FROM LOUISVILLE:
"All that is important is that 'my track' is getting strangled out of existence by a corporation from another state and nobody in Illinois can figure out how to stop it. We should all be ashamed.
"Soon all we'll have is memories. A few of mine begin with me starting at Arlington as a (seasonal) security guard, waiting on The Daily Racing Form each night at the bookstore on Campbell Street in downtown Arlington Heights.
"Then I'd handicap into the night. I'd walk my beat at the track the next day with an index card in my back pocket with all of my picks written on it. The birth of a newspaper handicapper -- and a great second job for a teacher.
"I REMEMBER THE FIRST MILLION, and yes, John Henry did nose out The Bart. I was standing up above on the wire and saw it with my own eyes.
"I remember being 'the kid' in the press box and being taken under the wings of Elmer Polzin, Don Grisham, Joe Agrella, John Brown, Sam Sena, Neil Milbert, Marty Dermer and Phil Georgeff. All great mentors and friends.
"Sadly, with the exception of Neil, they're all gone now. I saw Dave Feldman in the press box only once in 21 years."
VISIONS OF BACKSTAGE ARLINGTON remain with the Indiana University grad (Class of '69):
"I remember locking up the press box many days long after dark because I was too busy playing the horses in the afternoon to get my work done. I remember the winners. I've long since forgotten the losers.
"I remember picking Teleprompter in 'The Miracle Million' (1985) at 20-1. The win price at Arlington was the lowest anywhere in the world. Back then, I had fans!"
"I remember always having fun with 'The Bottom Line." I didn't win every year. But I did have a streak of seven consecutive years finishing in the black. After a while, it was expected."
AND WHAT ABOUT THAT ABSOLUTELY FABLED "Celebrity Handicapping Contest" in June 1987?
"I remember teaming up with Jim O'Donnell to win 'The California Cooler Handicapping Challenge.' Over two weekends, we picked more winners than the three other media teams."
(Gloat note: The other three tandems consisted of Johnny Morris and Gene Siskel (WBBM-Channel 2), Feldman and Ray Sons (Sun-Times) and Milbert and Dave Surico (Tribune).)
"Fans also picked the team they thought would win. The ones who picked The Daily Herald were then entered in a drawing. Sixty of them -- 60! -- each received $500. Jim and I handed out $30,000. What did we get for winning? Nada!"
THE MOST MEMORABLE EVENT?
"The 1985 fire that destroyed the old grandstand. My special memory was standing on the turf course with Bob Wolff -- the Arlington publicity director -- and (jockey) Gerry Gallitano watching the building burn.
"I looked to my left and noticed I was standing next to a former student who was unforgettable because he spent as much time in the office as the classroom.
When he saw me, he said, "Honest, Mr. Hallett. I didn't do it.
"A sweet memory from a very dark day."
• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at email@example.com.