Jim O'Donnell: Maybe there will be some magic at midnight after Arlington Park closes

  • The lights go out on Arlington Park Saturday night, but the memories remain.

    The lights go out on Arlington Park Saturday night, but the memories remain. Courtesy of Coady Photography

 
Updated 9/22/2021 4:35 PM

THEY SAY THEY ARE CLOSING a racetrack in Arlington Heights this weekend.

For good.

 

And who is left to push back?

A disinterested governor?

An overwhelmed suburban mayor?

State senators and local representatives long MIA on the matter?

That political vertical clearly has as much forcefulness as a media editorial board coming out in favor of traffic safety and nice weather.

Is it any wonder there are always some suspicious minds around the intersection of easy money and governance in the state of Illinois?

So Arlington Park will meet yet another uncertain end.

This time, some very informed people are saying, it's for real and it's the last time -- a vile, final goodbye.

The hollow charade will play out toward dusk Saturday.

AND THEN, SHORTLY AFTER MIDNIGHT, with no people or executive clowns or out-of-state corporate carnivores lingering, the magic might return to the Arlington air.

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Underneath only a garish death star, the soft, spectral parade should begin.

Joe Kelly will bugle a call to post, sandwiched between a few notes from "In The Mood" and "Dim All The Lights."

Phil Georgeff -- trademark binoculars in hand -- will strike his cocksure bantam pose in the announcer's booth.

In the paddock, Ben and Jimmy Jones, Harry Trotsek, William Hal Bishop, Eddie Neloy, Lucien Laurin, Lou Goldfine, Richard Hazleton, Ron McAnally, Noel Hickey and Bill Mott will be among those saddling a cavalcade of stars.

Dave Feldman will lurk, once again offering to buy chocolate ice cream for all if his Old Frankfort wins.

Secretariat will await his close-up. Citation will goose along stablemate Coaltown. Omaha, Gallant Fox, Round Table, T.V. Lark, Candy Spots -- all will clomp.

Dr. Fager will be the most wild-eyed of all, like young Cassius Clay before Liston I. John Henry will snicker and snap. Cigar will flash airy confidence.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Maxwell G. will loom, like a $4,000 Tom Brady knockoff. Colorado City will sneak in, uncredentialed.

Hasty Flyer and Shecky Greene will pore over Tom Ainslie speed notes and wonder what it's all about.

For comparative AP kids, Roger Brueggemann and The Pizza Man will represent all that the future of Illinois racing could have been.

KELLY'S BUGLE WILL BRING 'EM OUT and Georgeff's post parade will be glistened by some classic stable colors.

Among them: Warren Wright and Calumet Farm, Allie Reuben and Hasty House Farm, BelAir Stud, Rex Ellsworth, Penny Chenery, Joe Kellman (a pallbearer at Jack Ruby's funeral), Sam Rubin's Dotsam Stable, Lord Derby, Avers Wexler, the inimitable Frank Calabrese -- who says he invested $38.6 million in the game between 2000-2012.

The jockeys?

A colony of stars, including "Willie" Shoemaker and Bill Hartack, both of whom used to live in nice seasonal homes provided by the Lindheimer-Everett family on Wilke just north of Euclid.

Add Steve Brooks and Ted Atkinson and Bobby Baird and Eddie Arcaro, the great "Banana Nose" who will again make Georgeff's heart flutter.

Earlie Fires for sure, since in his prime, he and Georgeff were far and away the best-known of any Arlington personalities to more "Wally Phillips" people in Chicagoland.

Braulio Baeza is a must as are more contemporary aces stretching from Bobby Nono and Larry Snyder to Eddie Delahoussaye, Pat Day and Randy Romero.

Jerry Bailey, Gary Stevens and Rene Douglas all make the cut. Stevie Cauthen gets in with an asterisk, since his 1976 apprentice stay was a mere foundational peg in the making of a legend.

Sandy Hawley's brief turns during the magic of the "tent meets" in 1986-87 merit inclusion. Like Hartack, talk about "a ladies man" -- Wilt Chamberlain would have had trouble managing his overflow.

Even Li'l Eddie Perez gets a whip, if for nothing more than his propensity to make irate phone calls to the voice-message system of a bearded insouciant in the press box. They always ended with, "And OK, thank you, Mr. Jeem."

AND PLAYERS ... HORSEPLAYERS?

Where do you want them?

As goslings on the apron, like teenagers with names like "Wild Schill" and "Willie Tinez," or the garbagemen brothers Martin and Bill, who standing side-by-side looked like the number "10" and smelled like Glade "Waste."

Other brothers Mike and Butch Nelson -- whose father Red Nelson owned the old House of Lords Pool Hall in Mount Prospect -- would insist on admission.

Ditto for Gene and Jack McLaughlin, who went from lads hustling tip sheets and Daily Racing Forms at Euclid and "State" -- the original name of Arlington Heights Road -- to owning The Sports Page in Arlington Heights.

Or the mythic "OFO," an older gent who wore a Floyd Turbo-style winter flap-hat every day of the racing season and never lost a bet in which the jockey hadn't "schtipped" ("stiffed") his horse. ("He schtipped 'im.")

Up in the boxes, stalwarts to the end like Mike Benson and Jay Carpenter, son Brad and plumbing plunger Marty Nixon.

THE CLASSIC CLUB ONCE SIGNALED an arrival of sorts, even if it was nothing more than a daytripping young bartender standing next to Ed Connaughton of "Today's Racing" demi-fame at the giggle-juice square of union steward Bill Prather.

When her father Ben Lindheimer still owned Arlington, young Marje Everett began scheduling Wednesday afternoon fashion shows for the ladies in The Classic Club and The Post 'n Paddock.

Why Wednesday?

That was the afternoon a whole lot of doctors and dentists took off during the AP season to bring their "better halves" to the races.

And celebrities?

Always. Milton Berle over there. Mickey Rooney over here. Jack Klugman up there. Catskill fever.

On one stunning August afternoon in 1981, the insouciant stood writing down odds in front of a TV monitor near the north elevator by the mutuel windows. An extremely attractive girl suddenly stood next to him, doing the same thing.

He slyly took a half-step back to get a more complete visual.

Donna Summer! -- who was in the midst of two nights at Poplar Creek.

(And the insouciant had nothing -- zip, nada, zilch -- in the way of bon mots or casual suburban Irish witticisms. Ultra dryness, your highness.)

TABLE B-9 WAS ALWAYS an epicenter of action.

The season holder was an incredibly kind, successful insurance man named Jim Faetz, His partners in chase included an intense actuary named Paul Beecher -- absolutely brilliant with numbers -- and sportscaster Red Rush.

They let graduated goslings like "Little Ricky" and "The C.C. Rider" sit and learn more. "Faetzie" was also a very hard man to beat to a tab.

Rush would periodically entertain by hustling a tourist for a shared $20 quinella with a very theatrical trick:

He would flip over a corner of the tablecloth and lay a quarter flat on the surface next to a pitcher of water.

He'd then get down on his knees next to the table and insist he could put the quarter in the pitcher without using his hands -- if he was given three tries.

Tourists usually went for it.

Rush would then lip-lock the edge of the table, blow incredibly hard and send the quarter airborne. He'd intentionally miss attempts Nos. 1 and 2, hoping to up the bet.

Whether or not the wager was increased, The Ol' Redhead never missed Try No. 3.

Maybe not The Canestrellis trampoline act on "Ed Sullivan," but great between-races amusement.

MUCH OF THE OLD ORGANIC LIFE of Arlington Park was gradually sucked out as the global aspirations of Dick Duchossois and the advent of full-card off-track betting kicked in.

When the oval reopened in 2000 after a two-year "pout-down" and shortly thereafter was "merged" with Churchill Downs Inc., Duchossois's track maintained an elegance and charm. But it also came with the wipeaway of so much of the caste color that once made it what it was.

The 2002 Breeders' Cup was clearly supposed to be his valedictory and farewell. CDI-HQ set the path perfectly for him to enjoy his golden years sailing the world on his fabulous luxury yacht "The Blue Moon."

But he outkicked that expectation and soldiered on -- closing in on age 100 Oct. 7.

The last decade, in truth, has been little more than a long, diminishing march to an ending reeking of foul and oily -- totally "un-Duchossois."

Now, CDI delivers value to shareholders and the Northwest suburbs of Chicago loses a singular global landmark.

Ain't that America in 2021?

SO THEY SAY THEY ARE CLOSING a racetrack in Arlington Heights this weekend.

Hopefully, after the infamous final scene plays out Saturday, that one last slice of mythic midnight mirth will bedazzle -- if only in the memories and imaginations of the dismayed.

And while the legends dance, turn up the old Victrola.

Gonna race the night away.

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

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