“Class” can be hard to discern when you’re looking at a racehorse, but its absence in humans is almost always clear as can be.
That was certainly the case Saturday at Arlington Park, where what used to be the Arlington Million — the world’s first race with a $1 million purse – was run for probably the last time.
There’s a long, ugly backstory involving Churchill Downs Inc.’s behavior since a merger in 2000 led to its acquisition of the Arlington Heights track.
Churchill Downs initially pushed for legislation to allow slots or casinos at Illinois racetracks – including Arlington – and promised horsemen, breeders and owners that it would use any proceeds to boost purses, as many successful racetracks such as Oaklawn Park and Kentucky Downs have done.
That didn’t happen. When the request was finally granted in 2019, the company elected not to apply for a casino license so as not to lessen cash flow at Rivers Casino, a gaming emporium 10 miles from Arlington Park of which it is majority owner.
Then the gaming conglomerate announced in February that it intends to sell the 326-acre parcel on which the palatial jewel of Illinois racing sits and did not apply for racing dates for next year. A decision on the track’s fate is expected soon after Arlington’s current meeting ends on Sept. 25.
Only one of the bids would continue racing at Arlington, which was built in 1927 and rebuilt after a 1985 fire reduced it to rubble. But all indications are that Churchill Downs intends to sell it to a developer or the Chicago Bears and possibly pursue a racing license somewhere else in the greater Chicago area.
Now back to the classless moment. It occurred Saturday when Arlington track President Tony Petrillo, also a senior vice president of Churchill Downs, ordered all nine journalists covering the renamed Mr. D Stakes out of the press box and off the premises as they were working on deadline. There was no explanation given.
Petrillo’s outburst only added to the deep reservoir of ill will the company has built in the state, where horse racing could be on the ropes if only Hawthorne and the FanDuel Sportsbook & Horse Racing facility formerly known as Fairmont Park remain in operation.
“Everyone is scared to death about next year. There is heartache, and there is panic,” state racing board Commissioner Alan Henry said at a hearing this week.
Pacific Classic, Alabama stakes on tap
Del Mar and Saratoga both have top-notch cards set for Saturday, with the former serving up six graded stakes headlined by the $1 million Pacific Classic for older males and the latter featuring the $600,000 Alabama Stakes for 3-year-old fillies as well as a pair of undercard stakes.
Trainer Richard Mandella has a strong hand in the Pacific Classic, a 1¼-mile Grade 1 race on the main track that is a “win and you’re in” race for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, with his uncoupled entry of Tizamagician and Royal Ship. But the Todd Pletcher-trained Dr. Post also is intriguing. You may recall that Pletcher also shipped Vino Rosso west to get the feel of the Santa Anita racetrack before the colt returned to win the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Classic later that year.
At Saratoga, Shadwell Stable’s Malathaat will try to turn the tables on Maracuja, who handed the Kentucky Oaks-winner her first career defeat in the Coaching Club American Oaks, in the Grade 1, $600,000 Alabama, also run at 1¼ miles on the main track.
Ellis Starr’s Pacific Classic analysis
Most of the nine entrants in this year’s Pacific Classic have been taking turns beating each other:
Express Train beat Tripoli and Royal Ship in the San Diego Handicap last month but Royal Ship finished in front of Express Train seven weeks earlier when second in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita. Express Train beat Tizamagician in the San Pasqual Stakes this past January, then one day after the San Diego Handicap, Tizamagician beat Cupid’s Claws in the Cougar II Stakes. However, Cupid’s Claws had beaten Tizamagician when winning the Tokyo City Stakes last summer. When winning the Californian Stakes in April, Royal Ship beat Independence Hall and Express Train finished in front of Independence Hall when second in the Malibu Stakes last December. Sheriff Brown was far back in the San Diego, as was Magic On Tap, who also we well beaten by Royal Ship in the Californian.
With all that turn-taking to consider, the race is ready to be won by a new face. That new face is Dr Post with a career-best and field high last race 108 Equibase Speed Figure. That figure is likely to be improved upon as this will be Dr Post’s second start since adding blinkers as well as his second with Joel Rosario in the saddle. Dr Post made his third start following an eight month layoff in the Monmouth Cup Stakes last month, run on the same day as the San Diego and won more easily than the 1 1/4-length margin of victory makes it appear as he was “ridden out” in the final stages. Given that his first two races this year were at the distance of a mile around one turn, the stretch out to a mile and one-eighth around two turns in the Monmouth Cup sets the stage for an even better effort in the Pacific Classic.
Express Train is the next most probable winner of this year’s Pacific Classic, but unlike Dr Post (who has never run this 1 1/4-mile trip), Express Train is winless in two tries at the distance. His best effort of the two tries came when beaten a half-length in the Santa Anita Handicap in March, in which he led by two lengths with an eighth of a mile to go and was caught near the wire. It’s just unclear whether he can run his best at this distance, but coming off a big win in the San Diego Handicap last month with a 107 figure, and having run so well in the Santa Anita Handicap, Express Train has every right to win this race, particularly as he may have the early lead to himself from the start.
There’s no doubt Royal Ship, Tripoli, Tizamagician and Cupid’s Claws have some chance to win, but each as one negative factor in my opinion which makes that must more improbable than the top two win contenders. Royal Ship earned a 113 figure winning the Californian in April and finished in front of Express Train by a head in the Gold Cup (111 figure) but disappointed badly in the San Diego when a non-threatening third as the betting favorite with no excuse. Tripoli earned a 109 figure one before last in an allowance race and nearly duplicated the effort when second to Express Train in the San Diego Handicap but his 6 pound difference is not in effect here as they are at even weight and there’s no indication he wants to run this far, having never run farther than 1 1/16ths miles on dirt. Tizamagician (career-best 106 winning figure) and Cupid’s Claws (career-best 100 figure) both sport graded stakes wins at 1 1/2 mile, but that doesn’t mean they can run this well at the 1 1/4 mile distance.
The rest of the field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures: Independence Hall (110), Magic On Tap (106) and Sheriff Brown (104).
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.