Saturday, September 19, 2009

Finally... Arlington!

Originally printed at

This past Saturday, I set out on my maiden voyage to Arlington Park in Arlington Heights, Illinois; one would suppose, with all the races I attend, I would have visited one of the closest tracks in proximity to me at least a handful of times. I can't really say why it's taken me so long to visit the home of the Arlington Million, except for bad timing, looking to travel only to big stakes races, and my apprehension in having to take toll roads. What can I say, I don't like tricky driving. But after taking in the grounds and the experience there for the first time, I have to say I can't wait to return and get to know the park like an old broken-in couch.

Though I haven't been to half of America's racetracks, I've been to half of the top-rated facilities: Churchill Downs, Belmont Park, Oaklawn Park, Keeneland, Hollywood Park, Fair Grounds, and Turfway Park; this gives me a decent gauge on how to rate the new racetracks I visit. Calling itself the most beautiful track in America, Arlington was setting itself up for some scrutinizing. I admit I was pretty blown away by all I saw.

The first thing I noticed was the friendly staff waiting to greet you at the main gates; from the minute you arrive at Arlington, it's clear the proprietors want you to have a pleasant experience; it felt as if you were walking into an elegant, old-time park to see something really classy: what all good racetracks should strive for. When you enter a great race track, you feel like you're stepping into a different era, that you might be bumping into the upper crust letting down their hair and enjoying a beautiful day eyeing immaculate examples of horseflesh; elegance and racing go hand in hand-there's a reason there are races named after Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Arlington exuded this feeling immediately, from the entrance to the gorgeous paddock sitting directly behind the gates.

Though admission was a little pricier than most tracks ($7 for adults at the Box Office, $5 for Twin Spires Club members), I didn't mind footing the extra dough for a track that is unspoiled by slot machines and provides such a classy experience. The paddock was engorged with flowers and well-manicured trees, encircling an oval in front of the pristine saddling paddock. Rich green ivy climbed up the white stone walls of the rear of the grandstands, where a curving stair led you to the first level. I walked in, completely sold, before I'd even seen the track. There didn't appear to be a speck of dirt anywhere. And, unlike most tracks I've been to, there were people everywhere.

I attended Arlington Park on Blackhawks Legends Day, a special event coordinated to showcase ex-players from the NHL for autograph signings, which I cared and knew absolutely nothing about. But as far as I could see, only a fraction of the attendees at the track were actually there for the hockey stars. This was a non-stakes day, and the place was half-full of fans. I couldn't believe my eyes!

There were families and groups of friends everywhere; there were probably more people in attendance on this fickle day of racing than when I saw Horse of the Year Curlin run at Churchill Downs on Grade I Stephen Foster Super Saturday. Apparently, an outing to Arlington with your family or friends on a beautiful Saturday is the Thing To Do around Chicagoland. Why can't every track be like this? The atmosphere was fun, friendly, and simply unbelievable comparatively. Whatever secret the good folks at Arlington have figured out, the rest of America's tracks better figure out A.S.A.P. It's clear that the park pushes "family fun," and that looks to be a big factor with the crowds that came out on this late day in the season.

I also have to say a word about the facilities, because I like to see what is and isn't working at all the racecourses: the food was plentiful, and no matter what you were in the mood for, Arlington probably served it. Though I only went to the Cobeys Food Court on the first level, I was amazed by the choices of food and drink: you could order anything from a classic track frank and fries to pizza, a turkey sandwich, grilled chicken, or a salad. And it was good food, not reheated, soggy bread you knew had to have been sitting out since last Saturday. If you were to venture in the upper levels of the grandstands, maneuvering through the reserved and box seats, you were sure to find more elegant dining. If you arrived early, you could claim a table sitting at the top of the stairs, where you could relax and watch the races beneath shade. On either side of the grandstands, umbrella-shaded tables offered party-like terrace seating at an additional cost. Oh yeah, and the gift shop is also one of the best I've seen, offering everything from T-shirts and stylish hats to windbreakers, Arlington Million glasses, watercolor prints, and jewelry. You will not leave Arlington without taking home some sort of souvenir with the Arlington logo; even the reusable hurricane glasses were stamped with a race horse jetting out of a big A.

When I was able to pull myself away from the indoor marvels (yes, the bathrooms are also some of the cleanest I've encountered trackside), I was presented with what I consider to be one of the biggest factors in which I judge a racecourse: the outdoor apron seating, the infield, and the track itself. This is where a track lives and dies, and Arlington is set up with the fans in mind. While the infield is landscaped with majestic weeping willow trees and a large pond, both the turf and main track is easily viewable from the numerous outdoor bench seats, which cascade down stairs so no one will be obstructing your view, even if they're wearing a very large fancy hat. What's more, the finish line is placed directly in front of the grandstands, and the winner's circle is wedged in an embrace of paddock tunnel and grandstand seating. I don't think I've seen anything quite so fan-friendly. Not only can you stand directly across from the horses as they pass the wire, you can hang over the wall from the winner's circle and be handed a pair of signed jockey goggles, which is what all the kids were doing after each race. What a place.

There's only a couple complaints I have about Arlington, but they're not something the casual race-goer will probably notice; one, Arlington doesn't offer many stakes races. The Arlington Million is the track's pinnacle race, and I always seem to miss it for whatever reason. The race holds a few other stakes races on its main card the day of, which knocks out other days that could hold big stakes. Basically, I'd like to visit the track when it's full of top-notch horses not just running on the turf, which leads me to the next point: the main track is synthetic. Synthetic surfaces are proving to be a deterrent for some major athlete horses, like the great filly Rachel Alexandra; also, they're proving not to be the "safer" surface people thought they'd turn out to be. I won't get into the debate, it's just a personal preference, and the surface issue is becoming a hotly debated one in the racing world right now. With the other major Thoroughbred track in Illinois, Hawthorne, offering traditional dirt racing when Arlington's season ends come September 27, I'll have to check it out and see how it holds up.

But as Arlington is one of the finest tracks I've visited for family entertainment, atmosphere, live race-viewing, and amenities, it's going to have to be one hell of a track.

For more information on Arlington Park, visit their official website at Follow them on for racing updates and insightful commentary.

Friday, September 11, 2009

21st century "wow" horse

As printed today at Smile

Some people dream of seeing the Grand Canyon or the Statue of Liberty, of Mt. Rushmore or Gettysburg, whether for the history or the monument of Americana. To see one of these great pieces of our United States is to feel like the country is a little bit more yours, to thread the crossroads that connect the nation to your heart. It doesn't make you a better American to see these things, but it quenches a curiosity; it inspires, and presents a grandeur that little can convey. I dreamt of seeing such a timeless treasure, but the one I longed for was a living thing, something that was only three years old.

I dreamt of seeing a Triple Crown winner.

I wanted to see a rarity, I wanted to see true Greatness; I wanted to see a champion conquer the Mount Everest of American horse racing. Only the Triple Crown, I thought, would be able to provide such a test; after all, winning the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes in five weeks is a nearly impossible feat that has proven insurmountable for going on thirty-one years, making those eleven who have accomplished it seem all the more outstanding.

I was mistaken.

Though I still long for the day when I can say, "I saw (this future horse) win the Triple Crown," I can now say my appetite has been satiated. I no longer have to wait to see a Triple Crown winner to feel like I have seen a race horse reach the apex of Greatness. I saw that this past Saturday.

I won't bother to try to equal or do one better than what the award-winning turf writer Steve Haskin said about the Woodward most recently in Blood-Horse Magazine; Haskin pretty much summed up the feats Rachel Alexandra accomplished in becoming the first female to ever win the race, the heart it took for her to win under the conditions, the emotions she stirred at the grand old Spa, and put into perspective what she now means to the Sport of Kings.

Honestly, I don't know if I could find the words. I look at Rachel Alexandra, at what she has accomplished in so little time, and find myself at a loss. That sort of anomaly happens when you take in something breathtaking like the Grand Canyon, something that's too huge to wrap your mind around; I think there's a certain amount of respect in not saying anything at all, in merely basking in the glow of this tremendous horse... or just uttering "wow."

What more can be said on a subject that has been worn threadbare with glistening superlatives? She's the best race horse in the world right now? Certainly. She's one of the all-time Greats of the sport? Without question. Rachel Alexandra is more impressive than the undefeated Zenyatta? No contest. She has already tied-up the Horse of the Year honor? No brainer.

I'm blessed to have seen this picture of perfection in person, to have been present at the precise moment she exploded onto the scene like a comet from the darkness. I remember standing on the rail of Churchill Downs, telling everybody who would listen that Rachel Alexandra was going to blow the doors off this field of fillies in the Kentucky Oaks. The people standing around me were new to the sport; they didn't know Cigar from a stogie. I noticed a young man with a video camera as the horses were loading into the starting gates of the Oaks. I said to him, "You're not going to want to miss this. Watch Rachel Alexandra. Trust me."

Then the gates slammed open, and she erupted into the history books, and she never looked back.

I guess it's not so bad living in the 21st Century. Through all the trash, the worldwide conflict, the destruction of the environment, the war, the bad TV, the political unrest, the conspiracies, at least we have this: we have this horse, this indisputable champion, this little nugget of purity no one can touch.

And that's enough for me.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Rachel Alexandra takes on history again in the Woodward

Originally posted as my latest article at

If Curlin taught me anything in the Breeders' Cup last year, it's that the best horse doesn't always win the race. Look also at the 2009 Stephen Foster where the sure bet, Einstein, was blocked in the whole way 'round and never got an opening, having to settle for third place to Macho Again, a horse he could beat by daylight on any given day. Some will say last week's Travers is also an example of this notion, as the blazing Quality Road was boxed in and cornered on the rail, where a river of water had him logged until it was too late to work him into stride, and the lead was quickly surrendered to a free-floating Summer Bird. We like to think our heroes are invincible, but even Superman had his Kryptonite.

This is why Rachel Alexandra's foray into the Woodward is a little unsettling: she is daring to challenge history at Saratoga Race Course, the notorious "Graveyard of Champions;" it was here that Man o' War was handed his only defeat in 21 starts, here that the mighty Secretariat was beaten by Onion, here that the name Jim Dandy would ring forever, when the 100-1 longshot beat the Triple Crown winner, Gallant Fox. It was here that a horse named "Upset" became a vernacular in the world of horse racing, synonymous to when a favorite is undermined. Rachel Alexandra won't just be battling older horses in the Woodward, she will attempting to vanquish the spirits of Saratoga...

Read the rest here.


In undercard news, I'll be rooting for my boy, Pyro, in the Grade I Forego; it's Race 9 at Saratoga, directly before the Woodward. He'll be going for his first Grade I victory, and the hard-knocking little horse deserves it. It won't be an easy task, but his last race proved he's come back to form as a 4-year-old. I don't know if anyone has yet figured out what distance he likes best. Seven furlongs has me worried, I'll admit; a mile seemed more to his liking. Anyway, go Pyro! and happy Woodward day!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

This just in!

So while I was torn between who I should root for in the Pacific Classic, Blood-Horse announced that Einstein has been sold from the troubled Midnight Cry Stables to Frank Stronach.

Here's the article.

This is huuuge news, as Einstein has had quite a bit of problems entering races in certain states thanks to the criminals who have been racing him. I'm happy he's now in capable hands. I wonder if they will keep him on the same road to the Breeders' Cup, and then retirement?


I'm so torn as to who to root for in the Grade I Pacific Classic on Sunday. When I'm a fan of a certain horse, I'm die-hard. Unfortunately for me, there are two of my horses plus a bonus in the great field for the Classic this Sunday at Del Mar.

One of my scream-till-my-throat-is-sore favorites is Einstein, the hardy, versatile horse who has won over dirt, turf, and synthetics; most recently, he won the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap on synthetics and the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs. The 7-year-old horse has had the misfortune of either a bad trip or a distaste for the track in his last two times out; the Stephen Foster was a nightmare he should've and would've had in the bag had he not been a huge horse stuck in a pocket, while the Arlington Million proved once again that for whatever reason, Einstein doesn't like Arlington's turf (maybe it's the Euro-tall grass). So will we see Einstein return to form in California, where he turned back such competitors as Cowboy Cal, Matto Mondo, Champs Elysees, Monba, Magnum, and Court Vision? My guess... is yes.

Einstein has every reason to like Del Mar's main track; while he's a horse that does well on dirt, it's not where he's best. He's the rare breed that can tiptoe between the two classic surfaces, and since synthetics, let's face it, is smack-dab in the middle between dirt and turf as its own separate surface, it's where Einstein should excell. If you need convincing, watch how he pulls away in the stretch of the Big Cap, leaving the rest of the field the job to play "catch me if you can."

Speaking of horses who can walk the tightrope between different surfaces, the fringe horse coming into the Pacific Classic, Colonel John, has been made the morning-line favorite at 5-2. After a smashing 4-year-old debut on turf at a mile in the Wickerr, it seemed the 2008 Travers winner would have a future on the grass, but it seems he, too, is a horse that can dip from two pools and persevere. But is he the kind of horse that can boast such successes at this as Einstein? That, I'm not so convinced of. Take into consideration, for instance, that the Wickerr on July 31st was the first race Colonel John won since the Travers in August 2008. Between those two races, he ran 6th in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita, and then 4th in the Malibu the day after Christmas; granted, the Malibu was a 7 furlong race, which is pretty short for the son of Tiznow, but still, you've got to wonder if the 4-year-old Colonel John has moved on to, well, greener surfaces. He will have to run the race of his life to beat this field in the Pacific Classic... will this year's Hollywood Gold Cup winner, Rail Trip. Now, this is a horse I've been following since his third race, when I caught wind of this then-unbeaten, late-blooming 4-year-old gelding in California. Never having finished worse than second in his lifetime career of 8 starts, it took Rail Trip two consecutive losses for him to "become a man." But is Rail Trip "man" enough to beat the amiable Einstein and the intimidating Colonel? As the older horse division is a little soft in California, it's hard to say if he's got what it takes to defeat proven class; but it's high time he is thrown in the mix. With the retirement of fan favorite Lava Man, and the quirky performances of Dubai World Cup winner, Well Armed, California needs a new star in its fading horizon. Along with top horses, Rail Trip will also be going up against the nation's top jockeys in Julien Leparoux on Einstein, Garrett Gomez on Colonel John, and Rafael Bejarano on Parading. A through-and-through underdog, Rail Trip is the best story going into the Pacific Classic. God knows, I was so ecstatic he won the Hollywood Gold Cup, I jumped straight off a bucket when the gutsy gelding crossed the wire in a new record time for the mile and 1/4 (I wish this was an exaggeration. No, it's just another weird equine photographer situation).

So when it's stretch time, and Einstein starts rolling after Rail Trip, who will be likely taking the lead in the final furlongs, and Colonel John begins a late-running rocket from behind, I will be screaming incoherently. But for whom will the bell toll? Why, that's why we run races.