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By Thomas Chambers
A few horseplayers in Chicago like to bicker about which is better, Arlington Park or Hawthorne Race Course.
It's like Obama vs. McCain or Democrats vs. Republicans. There's no good one - they're all politicians. Or debating the merits as a metropolis of New York City versus Chicago. All I'll say here is New York had a 200-year head start and the put-upon munchkin running this city called our tallest skyscraper "Big Willie" this week.
There is really no comparison and I don't say that because of the facilities or that Hawthorne is considered to be in an icky neighborhood.
"Differences" is a better word to describe it, because Hawthorne's overwhelming focus is on racing now and forever, while Arlington is a sometimes-maddening place that tries to do all things to appeal to all people while Call it The House That Sensory Overload Built. Brought to you by The Churchill Downs Corporate Marketing Department.
Bands between races, clowns and gags for the kids, Friday's happy-hour Party in the Park for the yuppie set, or it's OK to bring your own food. It serves me no purpose to get as steamed about this stuff as I used to, but I will say a few things:
* The more interested you are in the racing, the further away from the track you are going to be. The General Admission gang under the overhang or on the picnic grounds, many of whom are not fully engaged in the races, monopolize the seating. The baby carriages can scrape your shins if you're not careful. And it sure is nice to have a phone-betting account when you go to the machine and see a puzzled newbie getting a wagering lesson.
Most of the seats in the grandstand are just like those at Wrigley or Comiskey, so there's no place to put your Racing Form or charts except your lap. Unworkable. I wonder how much money they would make if they did as Oaklawn Park does and sell the tabled, video-ed boxes in the grandstand when their season-ticket owners are not using them. Hell, we paid $46 at Oaklawn for such a box and were happy to do it. This is the territorial snobbery I'm talking about.
So for handicapping peace and quiet, I tend to end up in the Silks Lounge, coming outside to watch the actual race. It's a bummer because I don't see the point in going to the track and holing up inside. The Million Room is nice, but it's inside too.
* The aural stimuli are too much. Commercials blare out of the speakers and off of the video screen. Or there must always be music, whether piped in or by the band between races. Why can't there be peace? Reflect on the last race and ponder the next. Or why not show the big stakes race from Belmont? The marketing department here is most definitely concentrated on the circuses, with racing being a smaller priority.
* The food sure could be better. Comiskey Park is still the best in town, followed by the United Center. I was hungry and prepared to eat, but my internal cost/quality analysis told me no. So it was a big pretzel.
It was Arlington Preview Day, the last local prep day for the big Arlington Million Day on August 8. With an early post of 12:15 p.m., I decided to take the 8:30 a.m. out of Northwestern Station (it won't be Willis Tower to me either), the better to get a spot before the gate opening stampede. My timing couldn't have been better as advanced scouting parties were constructing their outposts to the left and to the right of me using the square tables and those white stackable chairs. When the turnstiles began spinning, their follow-up reinforcements brought up the rear with large coolers and food. I find that audacious, but it is allowed.
It ended up seeming like a pretty good, large-ish crowd. However, it's Churchill Downs Inc.'s "policy" not to divulge attendance figures. (I once had an editor who told us that if we ever used the word "policy" when talking to a reader or customer, we would be fired. And he meant it.)
My original plan was to roam around and take it all in, but when I was able to set up a table just under the front of the overhang - in the shade - I sez to myself "let's camp here." The general admission crowd here is not too magnanimous, so I knew I'd never be able to get so much as one butt cheek on the edge of a seat near or at another hardly-occupied table. A little more on that later.
This was a great spot for people watching, right on the sixteenth pole and smack in front of the video screen. I felt impending doom when, with very few people yet in the house, an old guy right near me was playing peek-a-boo around the pillars with a four-year-old kid dressed like a jockey. "I SEE you!" "SHRIEEEEEK!" The second time, I did a half-fake jump out of my skin followed by a dirty look. That was the end of that.
So besides some very good racing and a very moderately successful day of wagering, the outing was mostly a melange of sights, sounds and people:
Solitude: While the last horses are working out and then the tractors start grooming the track and the workers situate the turf rail, why do we have to listen to an insipid collection of canned music that combines the worst of Muzak and FM-radio playlists. I could go for a little piece and quiet. You know, hoofbeats.
Half-Assed Handicapping: Track announcer John G.Dooley and Arlington's resident handicapper Jessica Pacheco (she had a cup of coffee in the bigs, getting better as the day went on when she contributed to the ESPN coverage of the Breeders Cup last fall) come on the video screen to give their analysis of the day's races. It was a combination of worst pacing ever and not enough time to do the show. They spent too much time on the early, nothing races, so when it came time to cover the big races, they started sounding like the fast-talking guy with the commercial disclaimer. It's a shame because they are knowledgeable. If you're going to do it half-assed, why do it at all?
These Pretzels are Making Me Thirsty: Warm sun, running around, I'm dry. Water: $3.25. That's how Saratoga Springs became a vacation mecca, you know. Selling water.
I WANTa Hat: A big reason I left downtown so early was to be one of the first 3,000 to enter to get a free Arlington Million hat. So 75 minutes after my arrival, the gates open and I go hunting. Nothing at the front gate, like at the ballpark. Nothing in the paddock, except the Ladies Day tent and a couple of private-party tents. YOU walk across that paddock like a chicken with . . . It's BIG. Looking desperate I'm sure, I ask a couple dressed like they have the horse kind of money "Where did you get that hat, please?" It was at this little unmarked window under the John Henry-The Bart statue. It didn't seem like Arlington really wanted to hand out hats, but I bought my ticket online in advance like they told me to. Hey, I could have brought the other two printouts I had, but I'm an honest guy. I wore it the rest of the day.
Mrs. Illinois: A Web search revealed that there is more than one Mrs. Illinois. Who knew? Under her white sash, this knockout blond had a tiger-print mini-dress, high heels with a dainty lace hat on top of big hair. Precious. I thought I was back in Jersey. YOWSA!
Hey, It's Enrico Palazzo!: I don't think it was him, but I'm not 100 percent sure it wasn't a Jimmy The Hat sighting! It was one of those instant things: that's him. I can call this guy The Hat anyway. With the classic two-tone bowling-style shirt, he had on the stylish and popular white straw porkpie and his kid, about 5 or 6, sported properly a blue-on-white plaid cloth fedora. Almost, but not quite, a tiny Edward G. Robinson, on vacation. The stylish blonde with them was hatless. She didn't look like Jimmy's girl who we saw on Jockeys.
Rose and Emily: I mentioned the dirty looks I often got when looking to rest the dogs a bit on some chair or picnic table. It's not nice of the general admissioners. So when Rose from Niles and her daughter Emily visiting from Arizona asked me if the two chairs were taken and then tried to gingerly place the seats outside "my" social space, yet back in the shade, with a bit of a chuckle I invited them to share few square inches of "my" table. They were very nice about it. Their kids/grandkids, all the way down to a baby in a stroller, were elsewhere, watching the jockeys get weighed in the winners circle no doubt.
Emily is an occasional horseplayer at an Arizona track - Turf Paradise, she thought - and Rose knew next to nothing about the game. As we played most of the second half of the card, it was all ups and downs. "You really study this, don't you," Rose observed. Rose hesitated all day but finally wagered on the 10th race before leaving. She made it count big by hitting Dee's Rose in the Pink Ribbon Stakes for a combined $22.80 win and place!
To me, this is racing and Rose and Emily qualify as authentic horseplayers.
Hey, It's Enrico Palazzo! II: In a sparkling green paisley dress, an Angelina Jolie look-alike, except she was blonde, walks by in fashion heels. Pushing a huge baby carriage.
T-Shirts Worth Mentioning: Cubs shirt with a huge "Champions" emblazoned across the chest. In very small, nearly unreadable type just above it: "Central Division."
* A nebbish out of a Woody Allen movie wearing a shirt he bought at a nasty looking fight club event in Las Vegas. Shouldn't this look stay in Vegas?
* A committed couple. She with that pink t-shirt you've seen that says "Wrigley Field, Built 1914," he with a shirt plastered with pictures of the firehouse behind the left field pole at Wrigley. These two are plugged in to the Cubs.
* Chicago Bears shirt with a ferocious grizzly bear roaring out of this guy's chest. That bear didn't look like Lovie at all. If only the Bears were really that mean.
* And, backing it up, a guy with the simple slogan "I Like Beer."
Oddjob: Coming back to the table and looking down at my losing ticket, a six-pack of young ladies in huge, wide straw hats rumble out the door, nearly slicing me. I told you to look out for those hat brims.
What the . . .?: A lot of people began leaving as early as the ninth race. Too bad two of the biggest races of the day were the eleventh and twelfth!
I can honestly say I had a good time. The racing was good. The 8:30 a.m. Saturday train out is certainly the way to go, but at the cost of a Friday night at the Beachwood? Hard to say if I'll be out there the rest of the season. I kinda can't wait for Hawthorne to open this fall.
Two things puzzle me. Who said it was okay to arbitrarily designate a sporting event as "Premium" and then charge an arm and a leg for everything from parking to admission to concessions? And why do people pay it?
I blew in a call to Arlington about three seats in the Million Room for Million Day. $110 each! Food and beverage of any kind not included.
Then I get an e-mail from AP telling me about discounts from $10 to $30 for seats costing anywhere from $65 to $235 for a seat in the sun or in the banquet-event area or in what I think is a skybox. And they're more than doubling general admission to $15.
I've never been there on Million Day, but do they seriously think a Breeders Cup-type crowd is going to be busting down the doors? And what about the suckers who pay it?
Arlington Million Day is a fine day of turf racing in a country that emphasizes dirt and synthetic. Yeah, it's touted as one of the best grass courses in the world, but Colonial Downs is now doing some great things too. And it won't be a huge prep day for the Breeders Cup because the turf at Santa Anita is quite different from Arlington's. And the European horses often come over and kick butt anyway. I'd love to know how many people will fork it over on August 8, but CDI doesn't release attendance figures, as you know.
Rest in Peace
Lawyer Ron, the 6-year-old colt who helped legitimize the "Arkansas road" to the Kentucky Derby was euthanized last week week due to complications from colic. Named for attorney Ron Bamberger, counsel to owner James Hines, Jr. (who accidentally drowned just weeks before the 2006 Derby), Lawyer Ron won 12 races with four seconds and four thirds in 26 career starts, winning nearly $2.8 million. After winning the Risen Star Stakes at Louisiana Downs, and then the Southwest Stakes, Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby, all at Oaklawn Park, he finished 12th as one of the favorites in the 2006 Derby. He sat out the rest of that summer and came back to win the St. Louis Derby at Downstate Fairmount Park.
Finally learning to parcel out his speed instead of just taking off, he came back strong in 2007, winning the Oaklawn Handicap, the Whitney Handicap and the Woodward Stakes. He was caught and beaten by four lengths by up-and-coming superhorse Curlin in that September's Jockey Club Gold Cup. The newfound maturity, combined with his raw speed and desire to win, helped him win older horse of the year for 2007. For fans, it was simply a treat to watch him run and improve at 4 years old after a successful three-year-old campaign. He'll end up with two crops of foals. We'll see how good they'll be.
Super filly Rachel Alexandra will take on the boys again when she goes postward for the Haskell Invitational August 2 at Monmouth Park. It appears the Kentucky Oaks, Preakness and Mother Goose winner could face the likes of Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird, Atomic Rain, Munnings and Papa Clem. Upon learning of Rachel's Haskell plans, connections for Big Drama said they will steer him to the West Virginia Derby.
Thomas Chambers is the Beachwood's man on the rail. He brings you Track Notes every Friday. He welcomes your comments.
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