Three Chimneys Presents Good News Friday: The Day the Million Moved North

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Woodbine Racetrack Woodbine Racetrack

In a world where racetracks compete with each other in everything from handle to post times, it’s fairly uncommon that two tracks could work together.

This year’s Arlington Million marks the 25th anniversary of the race’s appearance at Woodbine, where it moved after a 1985 fire destroyed Arlington Park.

The famous fire raged for 12 hours beginning in the wee hours of July 31, 1985, and drew 24 fire companies and 160 firefighters to the scene.

Bob Wolff, former Arlington Park director of public relations and now working in public relations in Chicago, was the assistant public relations director for the track at the time. Wolff and his colleagues were working late at the track just hours before the blaze began, although he said he was in a different part of the building from the electrical malfunction that threw the first sparks.

By the time Wolff was on the scene, the flames had spread to the clubhouse but the structure of the 60-year-old building made it difficult to tell how much of the support structure was burning.

Arlington Park fire

Arlington Park fire

“I remember walking through the tunnel and I was wondering why there was smoke on the ground floor of the clubhouse,” recalled Wolff. ‘I walked out and I looked up and saw several firemen. They were using a chainsaw to cut into the box seats on the floor above me. After cutting for a few seconds they’d say ‘Back!’ and then two or three seconds later, fire would jump out. The wood was burning under the concrete.

“We went into a press conference at noon at the Arlington Hilton … we came out a half an hour later and the sky was darker than normal. What had happened was, the fire had reached the roof and the roof was on fire. It took six minutes to travel 900 feet. And once the roof was totally in flames, it was like 15 or 20 minutes before it collapsed.”

The 1985 Million was held in the shadow of the burnt-out grandstand less than one month later before a crowd of 35,000 fans.

Initially, the Illinois state government was slow to adopt legislation that would make the rebuilding of the track affordable, but by the 1987 race meet, plans were in place to construct the current facility.

“Construction started after the last race on Labor Day,” said Wolff. “We had a champagne toast and the bulldozers came down the stretch. The very next day they started excavating the new building.”

Even though the work was finished in half the time it should have taken, track management knew it wouldn’t be ready in time for the 1988 Million. Rather than let the race, then in its seventh year, go dormant, officials began working to find an alternative location for the contest.

There were three considerations for an alternate, Arlington Park owner Dick Duchossois said at the time:

“Selecting the best site to enhance the thoroughbred racing industry in North America, picking the best site for the race itself (and) choosing the most convenient site for the fans who have supported the first million-dollar thoroughbred race in remarkable fashion since its inception in 1981.”

Ultimately the choice came down to Keeneland Race Course or Woodbine, and officials sided with Woodbine due to its seating capacity and convenient set-up for international shippers.

In the days before easily-portable cell phones and email, Wolff said the task of coordinating the promotion of the race from another country could have been difficult. Instead, his northern neighbors threw themselves into making the day a success, even though it overlapped with their summer meet.

“The people at Woodbine were first-class. They bent over backwards every which way to make this happen, from Jack Kenney who was President/CEO, to Col. Charles Baker, who was good friends with Dick Duchossois, to Rick Cowan, the general manger and Bruce Walker, who was the public relations director at Woodbine. They went out of their way, made us feel welcome at every stage.”

Wolff and Walker worked together to tempt Chicagoans the 400 miles to Toronto, starting with an invitation to legendary NHL player Bobby Hull to draw the Million post positions. Arlington officials also put together weekend vacation packages for the estimated 4,000 race fans who made the journey.

Wolff said he doubts that many people would travel so far for a horse race these days.

“Different times, different circumstances. Simulcast is prevalent now but back in ’88 all you had was off-track wagering.”

In the end, the event went off without a hitch, as Andre Fabre-trained Mill Native set a Woodbine track record ahead of a field that included Equalize, Sunshine Forever, Yankee Affair, and Great Communicator; English runners Media Starguest , Deputy Governor, Most Welcome, French challengers Roi Normand, Something True, Anka Germania (IRE), and Triptych, and Canadians Carotene and Regal Classic.

“It was like having a double of yourself,” said Wolff. “Everybody hit their mark because there was tremendous cooperation between the two teams.”

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  • Bob

    Sadly a different crowd running woodbine now, ask Fort Erie how helpful they are.

  • azeri1

    Those were the days of gallantry. We really need to put the sportsman-like behavior that was prevalent then back into our cherished sport. It’s beginning to happen, and these history lessons help.

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