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TrackNotes: The Meaning Of The Million

I paid my annual visit to Arlington Park on Saturday for the 35th Arlington Million, but for those of you who gang TrackNotes and consistency in the same sentence, I did not Metra up there. Thank the magic of television, which turned out to be a real trip itself.

I'd finished setting up the new Forbidden Fruit BozoPuter which, I'll tell you, becomes real murder when you can't remember or find your WiFi password. I should at least get some free DeVry credit.

Ready for HORSE racing, NBCSportsNet pops on with B-level NASCAR road racing from Pocono. Rant as I did, we have to swallow the fact the ponies don't have the clout for a no-preemption clause if things run late somewhere else.

And don't forget, Churchill Downs Inc. didn't care and Arlington had no pull, so The Million had been relegated to local WGN-Channel 9 in some sort of time-buy deal for a number of years previous to the 2017 jump to NBC. We suffered through Dan Roan, Rich King and AP shill Howard Sudberry for what can be called Chicago's Very Own Dark Ages. "For those of you new to the game, this is a horse," we often heard.

NBC took over as part of the Win and You're In program for the Breeders' Cup. The Beverly D. winner earns a berth in the BC Filly and Mare Turf and the Million winner the BC Turf.

As NBC fawned over the hood logos of the winning car, the Beverly D. (Grade I, 9.5 furlongs, turf, fillies and mares three and up, $600,000) went off. Dacita, an up-and-downer who had run into the hot filly Hawksmoor in her last two, relaxed, saved some ground and roared up for the 6-1 victory over Dona Bruja, the race favorite, and Grand Jete, who both dead heated for Place. The Chilean Dacita is a very nice horse, but not top shelf. She finished ninth in her Breeders' Cup race last year. Hawksmoor finished seventh Saturday.

Subjected over the years to multitudes of politicians, lifestyle columnists, restaurant critics and Olympics kowtowers blithely tossing around the inherently cheap term "World Class"- almost always as if they invented it - not like manhole covers, but like the plugged nickel it's ultimately worth per invocation, this year's exodus from local TV to niche cable sports and the NASCAR interruption spared us the parochial cringe. When the four-leggeds finally cut in, all we heard from Laffit Pincay III was " . . . of the finest facilities in the nation."

It's easy to trust Laffit, and I do, because he's not from around here.

In both the context of its own sport and the all-around category, Arlington Park is the finest venue in Chicagoland. Wrigley Field was never world-class and will now never be with what the Ricketts have done up there. Comiskey Park (it's carved into the stone, so I can say it that way) is more comfortable. For what it is asked to be, United Center comes close. And I'll always love Hawthorne, for reasons outside this comparison.

But the disparity of the facility to the racing itself is like hitching up all eight Clydesdales in full tassel and brush to hit the 7-Eleven for a single Budweiser tallboy. And you've heard my rants on the PolyTrack main track at Arlington, still there in all of its blackened, cooked glory. It was difficult to declare, but I really thought I saw a lot of empty seats up in the main grandstand, even right after the big race.

And if you watch any of these videos, notice how the view of up to 25 percent of the race is blocked by those damn trees. Arlington has always been this way. Hoiberg, we're going to play the second quarter with the lights off. Thankfully, NBC had plenty of cameras and switched around the trees.

We did see Mike Ditka on the rail looking as if he was on the bow of the lead destroyer steaming to Guadalcanal. And Coach J. Quenneville, looking like a kid in a candy store, stood in the background wide-eyed as the winning connections morphed into the circle.

Bottomed out in the Barcalounger, it became clear that NBC, rather than diving into full celebration of the Arlington International Festival of Racing, was more honoring its commitment to cover the Breeders' Cup qualifiers. Plus, it was a relative hole in the schedule vis a vis Saratoga and Del Mar.

Pincay, relegated to the paddock or barn areas when the first string lands, was joined by British broadcaster Nick Luck on the anchor desk. Britney Eurton, TVG racing personality and daughter of trainer Peter Eurton, handled the roving microphone.

That's it. Skeleton crew, although Eddie Olczyk would certainly have been there if not for his recent health problems. But it seemed just right, of the correct proportion. Just because it's Arlington's biggest day doesn't mean it's big in the grand scheme of American racing - especially a turf-centric program in a dirt-racing nation.

But what of this Arlington Million? Just how big or important is it, this year and for all time?

Saturday, Beach Patrol, the son of the very successful Lemon Drop Kid, stayed on or near the lead the whole race, surrendered the lead to the 9-5 favored Deauville, but took it back and beat 56-1 Fanciful Angel just less than a length. Deauville had every chance clear on the rail, but couldn't get it done and finished third. Under Joel Rosario, Beach Patrol's win came 364 days after he won his last, the Secretariat here at Arlington on Million Day.

Of the other notables, eight-year-old The Pizza Man, a Million winner in 2015, finished 12th and Divisidero, who beat Beach Patrol and Million runner Oscar Nominated two back at Churchill Downs, finished seventh.

Does this spell Breeders' Cup Turf glory for Beach Patrol? Almost certainly not.

The only horse who has won the Million and the BC Turf in either the same year or in staggered years was Little Mike with both in 2012. The Pizza Man took fifth in the Turf in 2015, probably the best you could have hoped for him.

One of the greatest horses to ever win the Million, Gio Ponti in 2009, ran in it three times, also finishing second in 2010 to Debussy and 2011 to Cape Blanco. Gio Ponti had a brand of Breeders' Cup success himself, but never won, running into the legendary Goldikova in the BC Mile in 2010 and losing the mile to Court Vision in 2011. I remember his connection confusing 'Ponti's inner odometer, racing him at varied distances, he had such guts.

The Steel Drivin' Horse John Henry, of course, won the first Million in 1981, before the Breeders' Cup existed, and then won it again in 1984. He was scheduled to run in the BC Turf Cup in 1984 but was found to have ligament damage and was retired. He won the Jockey Club Gold Cup in 1981, when that race was considered THE season-ending championship race, what the BC Classic is now. Meantime, all John Henry was was turf horse of the year four times and overall horse of the year twice.

At first, it was the million dollars that put Arlington's race on the map, but after the first one was over, it was John Henry who had carved it into stone. And bronze. His photo finish win over The Bart is still argued by the oldtimers and it's even hard to tell by the statue of the two in the paddock at Arlington.

Other notable winners of the Million, at least to me, are Beat Hollow in 2002, one of the late Bobby Frankel's greatest training jobs, Powerscourt in 2005 and The Tin Man in 2006.

It is unfair to link any two races as proof positive whether a horse is great or not. Still at $1 million, the Arlington Million is a great race to win and has built a good reputation in its 35 years, which is really a short life as esteemed races go.

But it is not an international showcase of the top turf horses. And many of these same types were in the $500,000 Fourstardave Handicap at Saratoga the same day.

My wish is that Arlington would install and take care of a real dirt track of the same quality as its turf course; maybe move one of its turf races to that dirt and work towards building it into a Grade I; either lower or freeze for a decade it entry price; improve the lousy food; get rid of the damned trees and build a hedge maze where the baby strollers can get lost for the full length of the card; and stop hating on Hawthorne.

If they did a few of those first things, well, you might call that world-class behavior.


Tom Chambers is our bird on the rail. He welcomes your comments.

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