When the Greats Came to Arlington

Secretariat, Dr. Fager, Damascus, Buckpasser, Spectacular Bid, John Henry, Whirlaway, Kelso, Native Dancer, Round Table, Gallant Fox, Omaha, Nashua, Cigar. They all raced in stakes at Arlington Park. Several set track and world records there, one inaugurated a new and important race named the Arlington Million, and on two occasions, Secretariat and Cigar made special appearances to run in races carded especially for them at the height of their popularity. ~ Steve Haskin

When the Greats Came to Arlington

By Steve Haskin


To celebrate Arlington’s rich history as it faces its tragic demise under the brief ownership of Churchill Downs Incorporated, I am going to take a look back at four of the track’s most historic moments and the equine heroes who made it such an important stop on the road to the Hall of Fame. The races are listed in chronological order.



Arlington Park was one of the great tracks of that era, with dirt races like the American Derby, Arlington Classic, Washington Park Handicap, Chicagoan Stakes, and the rich Arlington-Washington Futurity and Lassie all attracting the nation’s top horses.

In the summer of 1967 Damascus had established himself as the leading 3-year-old in the country with victories in the Wood Memorial, Preakness, Belmont, Leonard Richards Stakes, and Dwyer Handicap under 128 pounds. Having already run 10 times at 3, the logical next step appeared to be the Travers. But back then, five weeks was a long time between races and Damascus was an iron horse who thrived on competition. So trainer Frank Whiteley decided to ship to Arlington for the 1 1/8-mile American Derby, even though Damascus was coming off a hard race in the slop, giving runner-up Favorable Turn 16 pounds and would then have only two weeks to the Travers.

The brilliant Dr. Fager, who had defeated Damascus in the Gotham Stakes, was suffering from a virus at the time, so Whiteley didn’t have to worry about him. His main concern was In Reality entering the race. The talented Florida-bred colt had run a solid second to Damascus in the Preakness after having won the Fountain of Youth Stakes and Florida Derby earlier in the year. He then was placed first in the Jersey Derby after the egregious disqualification of Dr. Fager, in what is regarded as one of the worst disqualifications in racing history, wiping out a brilliant 6 1/4-length victory by Dr. Fager. In Reality then went home to Monmouth Park where he captured the six-furlong Rumson Handicap and 1 1/16-mile Choice Stakes.

Because Damascus had to carry 126 pounds in the American Derby and give away substantial chunks of weight to top-class stakes horses, Whiteley, not wanting to give Damascus another strenuous race with the Travers only two weeks later, decided to feel out In Reality’s trainer Sunshine Calvert, asking him what his intentions were.

Calvert assured Whiteley that he wanted no part of Damascus, feeling that after the Preakness defeat there was no sense trying him again. So Whiteley went ahead and sent Damascus to Arlington Park, which still would be no stroll in the park with Blue Grass Stakes winner Diplomat Way getting eight pounds from Damascus; Hollywood Derby winner Tumble Wind in receipt of six pounds; Kentucky Derby runner-up Barbs Delight, who had finished ahead of Damascus at Churchill Downs and was coming off a victory in the one-mile Assault Handicap at Arlington Park in 1:33 1/5, getting 10 pounds, and Favorable Turn, who had given Damascus all he could handle in the Dwyer, and Gentleman James, third in the Belmont Stakes, both in receipt of 14 pounds.

But when Whiteley arrived at Arlington after vanning Damascus there, he was in for a surprise. He went into the track kitchen, and sitting there was none other than Sunshine Calvert.

“You little lyin’ sonofabitch,” Whiteley growled at the diminutive Calvert, who tried to defend himself.

“Well, I saw you had to spot me six pounds, so I felt if I was ever going to beat him this would be the time,” he said.

Despite the weight concessions, Damascus was sent off as the 4-5 favorite with In Reality at 7-2 and Barbs Delight at 5-1.

At the start, Barbs Delight, as expected, shot to the lead and quickly opened a two-length advantage after a sharp opening quarter in :22 4/5. Around the clubhouse turn, the seven-horse field was already strung out, with Bill Shoemaker and Damascus 15 lengths off the lead. In Reality, farther back than usual under Earlie Fires, had settled in fifth, about five lengths ahead of Damascus.
Down the backstretch, Barbs Delight maintained his two-length lead, followed by Favorable Turn and Diplomat Way, with the half in a lively :46 flat.

Going into the far turn, Barbs Delight kept up his brisk pace, hitting the three-quarter marker in 1:10 1/5. It was time for Shoemaker to step on the gas. Damascus had amazed racegoers several times with his spectacular turn of foot, pouncing on horses like a cat its prey. When Shoemaker unleashed Damascus, he took off after the leaders, but despite running his next quarter in a blazing :23 flat, he still was six lengths back with only one horse beat.

Passing the three-eighths pole, Shoemaker switched into second gear and the result was devastating. Damascus, as usual, lowered his head slightly, and with lightning-quick strides, he circled the field, sweeping by horses in a flash. Six lengths back at the three-eighths pole, he was two lengths in front at the top of the stretch and just kept pouring it on, opening a four-length lead at the eighth pole.

After another blistering quarter in :23 1/5, Damascus continued to draw clear with every stride, as an overmatched and overwhelmed In Reality tried futilely to keep up. Shoemaker just hand-rode Damascus the rest of the way, cruising to a seven-length victory, with In Reality drawing three lengths clear of third-place finisher Favorable Turn.

Damascus’ final time of 1:46 4/5 erased Buckpasser’s track record and missed the world record by only two-fifths of a second. Even more impressive was Damascus’ final five-eighths in a spectacular :58 2/5.

The superlatives came flying in immediately after the race. Arlington Park race-caller Phil Georgeff and Blood-Horse writer Joe Agrella both called it “electrifying.” Daily Racing Form columnist Don Grisham called it an “illuminating demonstration.” And Elmer Polzin, writing in the Thoroughbred Record, used the words, “explosive,” “blistering,” and “demoralizing.”

Georgeff, who had been calling races at Arlington for over 40 years, added, “That was absolutely amazing. He suddenly went into overdrive and that was it. I’ll never forget it.”

It was also a rude awakening for Earlie Fires, who always felt In Reality was by far the best horse he’d ever ridden. But after the American Derby, he finally threw in the towel, trying to beat Damascus.

And what did Sunshine Calvert have to say after the race?

“I’m heading back to New Jersey.”



As soon as Dr. Fager crossed the finish line following his easy romp in the Whitney, making light of 132 pounds, everyone knew what was coming next. If ever a race and a horse were meant for each other it was Dr. Fager and the Washington Park Handicap over the Arlington speedway that had already seen several world records broken. The most recent came in 1966 when Buckpasser took advantage of his stablemate Impressive’s insane fractions of :43 3/5 and 1:06 4/5 and lowered the world record to a seemingly untouchable 1:32 2/5.

But everyone knew the world record was in jeopardy as soon as Nerud announced his plans to ship to Arlington, despite Dr. Fager being assigned 134 pounds.

Of all the distances, there was a mystique surrounding the mile record. That is the one distance where a horses has to have speed, stamina, and toughness, and the ability to run fast from the start, withstand pressure the whole way, and keep going strong to the wire. Dr. Fager was the quintessential miler who could carry his extraordinary speed from sprints to a mile and a quarter and set records regardless of the distance, while carrying staggering weights. He had already run the fastest mile by a 3-year-old in the history of New York racing, romping in the Withers Stakes the year before in 1:33 4/5, a fifth of a second off the track record.

Unlike current world record holder Buckpasser, Dr. Fager was on his own. Regardless of who was going to show up against him, it was going to be him against the clock. When asked about the possibility of Dr. Fager breaking the record, Nerud said bluntly, “Those things aren’t important to me. I’m only interested in winning.”  That is what was so amazing about Dr. Fager. Nerud never trained him or asked him to set records. He just wanted him to get the job done and come back sound for the next race.

Dr. Fager arrived at Arlington two days before the race right in the middle of an oppressive heat wave. The Doc, like others in his family, was susceptible to colic. Nerud knew he had to watch him closely, and the afternoon before the race he sat with the Dr. Fager and just talked to him and soothed him trying to keep him settled. That night he walked him to keep him moving and help him relax.

By race day, Dr. Fager was doing fine, and fortunately a cool wind whipped through the Chicago area breaking the sweltering heat and humidity.

In the paddock, Nerud did not give jockey Braulio Baeza any instructions and there was no talk at all about world records. If he was going to break the world record he would have to do it without any urging from Baeza, while carrying 134 pounds, nine pounds more than Buckpasser carried when he broke the record.

A field of 10 was entered, with the main danger coming from the fast and versatile Racing Room, who was in receipt of 18 pounds. In the span of one month, Racing Room had won the 5 1/2-furlong Hollywood Express Handicap in a blistering 1:02 2/5; finished third in the mile and an eighth American Handicap on the grass; finished second, beaten a neck, in the mile and a quarter Hollywood Gold Cup in 1:59 4/5; and won the mile and three-sixteenths Citation Handicap on the grass. Another contender was the tough and resilient 7-year-old miler R. Thomas, winner of the Westchester Handicap twice, Equipoise Mile, Salvator Mile, Sysonby Mile, Vosburgh Handicap, and Sport Page Handicap.

Also in the field, carrying a feathery 112 pounds, and going off at odds of nearly 48-1, was none other than the thorn in Dr. Fager’s side, Hedevar, Damascus’ rabbit from the previous year’s Woodward, and a previous world record holder who ironically was breaking right next to Dr. Fager. To further ensure a rapid pace was the 3-year-old speedster Kentucky Sherry, who earlier that year had run the fastest opening six furlongs (1:09 4/5) and equaled the fastest opening half (:45 4/5) in the history of the Kentucky Derby.

Dr. Fager, sent off at 3-10, broke on top from post 9, but was taken in hand by Baeza. One thing about Dr. Fager was that he could rate briefly in one turn races, but when breaking in front of the cheering crowd he got his blood up early and was almost impossible to control if another horse tried to outrun him. Alone on the lead he could rate, as he did in his track record-equaling Suburban Handicap. That is why rabbits were thrown at him by the trainers of Buckpasser and his arch rival Damascus.

In the Washington Park Handicap, Dr. Fager dropped back to sixth early, less than three lengths off the lead, and when the teletimer revealed a tame opening quarter in :22 4/5, all thoughts of a world record evaporated.

As they continued down the backstretch, it was a mad scramble up front, as R. Thomas slipped through on the inside to stick his head in front, but Dr. Fager had enough of Baeza’s restraint, and when the good doctor had enough of restraint so did the jockey, whether he wanted to or not. Baeza, as usual, let Dr. Fager take over and prepared to sit back and enjoy the ride. The Doc charged to the front, stopping the teletimer at :44 flat for the half-mile. He had run his second quarter in an unheard of :20 3/5. It was believed to be the fastest quarter-mile fraction ever run in a non-sprint race and the fastest quarter ever within the body of a race at any distance.

Around the far turn, Dr. Fager began drawing away from the pack, with only Racing Room giving chase. Baeza kept Dr. Fager well out from the rail and actually looked like he was giving him a breather. It was apparent the world record was the furthest thing from his mind. Dr. Fager, as usual, had his head up and was cruising along with Baeza just sitting on him, about four paths off the rail.

Baeza admitted he never knew how fast Dr. Fager was running and if only he could have seen the tote board he would have realized that the horse seemingly galloping along beneath him was actually flying, his six furlongs run in a scorching 1:07 3/5. The world record would be his with a sub :25 quarter. But Baeza could never have imagined it was within his reach, so not only did he not ask Dr. Fager to run down the stretch, he wrapped up on him as soon as he straightened for home.

Despite Baeza sitting like the proverbial statue every step of the way, Dr. Fager still kept opening up on the field in the final furlong. The Doc’s ears were straight up, his long mane blowing wildly in Baeza’s face, and it was obvious there would be no last-ditch attempt at the record. With each humongous stride, Dr. Fager’s lead increased and he crossed the wire eased up by 10 lengths.

Track announcer Phil Georgeff, stunned by the performance, forgot to turn his microphone off. As Dr. Fager pulled up, out of the silence came a single faint word: “Wow!”

Like Baeza, the last thing on Georgeff’s mind was the world record. “He was just galloping through the stretch and was running so effortlessly that I had forgotten all about the record, especially since he was carrying 134 pounds,” he recalled. “When I saw the time I was shocked.”

Georgeff announced to the crowd, “Ladies and gentlemen, may we draw your attention to the final time of 1:32 1/5, which is a new world record.”

Baeza admitted he had no idea Dr. Fager was within reach of the record. “I never in any of his races knew how fast he was going,” he said. “He moved so smoothly and his action was so fluid I felt like I was in a Lear Jet. All I knew was that he was going faster than the rest of them. I’d try to slow him down, but he’d still pull away from them.”

Over the decades, those of around to experience and truly appreciate this historic event keep asking the same question. If only he had been given the opportunity, how fast could Dr. Fager have run that day?

The legendary jockey Ted Atkinson, for whom Nerud once worked as agent and who eventually became a state steward at Arlington Park, told Nerud after the race, “Hell, he could have done it in (one) thirty and change. He was six lengths within himself.”

Based on Dr. Fager’s time for the mile, a study was made a year and a half later with the help of the St. Louis and Bronx Zoos, which concluded that Dr. Fager was faster than a cheetah, recognized as the fastest animal on Earth.

It has now been 53 years, and no one has been able to break a world record set by a horse carrying 134 pounds and winning eased up the entire length of the stretch. Many have tried, but like Dr. Fager himself, it was like trying to catch the wind.



In the weeks following Secretariat’s spectacular record-breaking Triple Crown sweep, culminating with an other-worldly 31-length procession in the Belmont Stakes, the colt they called “Big Red” had become more than another equine hero. His fame and persona had taken on mythical qualities and he was deified as much as he was adored. Never before had a horse been featured on the covers of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated. It is doubtful any human had in the same week.

It was now up to the colt’s connections, owner Penny Tweedy and trainer Lucien Laurin, to decide on his next race. Wherever it was it would be the event of the year, with hordes of fans flocking to the track to get a look at this modern day Pegasus.

Between the Belmont Stakes and the historic Saratoga meet, there did not appear to be a race for 3-year-olds that would be special enough for Big Red’s next stop on his journey to immortality, and the first since his record-shattering performance in the Belmont.

That is when Bill Thayer, Arlington Park’s general manager, threw his hat in the ring. He flew to New York and headed to the Belmont backstretch to make his case to Lucien Laurin on why Arlington Park would be the next logical step for Secretariat. Why not bring the horse to the Midwest and show him off to avid racing fans who had never seen him in the flesh?

But Thayer was not alone in his thinking, as he found representatives from Monmouth Park and Hollywood Park already there, both offering substantial purses; much more than Thayer had to offer.Thayer told Chicago’s Daily Herald years later that he hid behind a tree until they left because he was too embarrassed by his $100,000 offer. But Laurin had great respect for Thayer and he knew he was friends with Penny, so he gave her a call and explained how Arlington’s reputation had been stained by an ugly court case involving former Illinois governor Otto Kerner and the track’s business had “hit rock bottom.”

According to the Daily Herald, Penny told Thayer she would come for a purse of $125,000 and he was so excited he dropped the phone. Now all he had to do was convince Arlington president Jack Loome to put up another $25.000. As it turned out there was no convincing needed, as Loome jumped at the opportunity.

So the one shot deal Arlington Invitational was born. But there was still the task of finding horses to run against the mighty Secretariat. Three accepted, with two of them being Blue Grass winner My Gallant, who had been crushed by Secretariat in the Belmont, and Florida Derby winner Our Native, who had finished third behind Secretariat and Sham in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. The other was a local outsider named Blue Chip Dan.

The race was set for June 30, only three weeks after the Belmont. A massive crowd of 41,233 showed up, with Arlington opening the infield to accommodate the overflow. Wagering was so heavy on the card that it raised attendance and handle 13 percent for the rest of the meet. Thayer called it one of the greatest days in Arlington Park history. Mayor Richard Daley proclaimed June 30 “Secretariat Day” in the city of Chicago. So unique was this event that there were only two betting interests – Secretariat and the other three horses lumped together as a mutuel pool.

As Secretariat made his way on to the track, the crowd, which was crammed together shoulder to shoulder on the apron, gave Big Red a rousing ovation.

ABC televised the event and had noted TV broadcaster Chris Schenkel sit with Penny and Laurin in the box during the race with them commenting on the running. Penny admitted that “being up here with all of you scares me to death. All these people who have come out have a right to see him and I hope he doesn’t disappoint them.”

Despite Penny’s fears and a few unnecessary anxious moments watching the race, Secretariat was never in any danger. After breaking last, he quickly shot to the lead and was pretty much kept on on cruise control by jockey Ron Turcotte the rest of the way, drawing off with ease to win by nine lengths and missing Damascus’ track record of 1:46 4/5 by a fifth of a second, which was extremely impressive considering he crawled the opening half in :48.

The race itself was not competitive, but it was what the fans had come out to see – a procession worthy of the noblest of kings.



I wrote about this race in detail a short while back in my “Profiles in Courage” column. So now I am going to get personal and divulge a story about the inaugural Arlington Million I have never made public before, except for a mention on Facebook.

It was the spring of 1978. I was working as librarian for Daily Racing Form and starting to write freelance features for major racing magazines in the United States and abroad. While attending Royal Ascot I was hired as American Representative for Stud & Stable, which was Great Britain’s leading racing magazine. I was staying at the Sussex, England home of my friend George Ennor, racing writer for the Sporting Life, and his family. One night George invited his friend John Hughes and his wife for dinner. Hughes was the clerk of the course at Aintree and a powerful man in the industry.

After dinner, John told me about a plan he was working on and wanted my help. He also worked for Waterford Crystal and said the company was looking to do something new and bold in the racing industry. They wanted to stage the first ever $1 million horse race, preferably at a mile and a quarter, and sponsor it, naming it the Waterford Crystal Million, with the winner receiving a Waterford Crystal trophy.

They wanted the race to be run on grass in the U.S. but not on either coast. They wanted a neutral site in the middle of the country to accommodate European horses and not give any American horse stabled in New York or California an advantage. He asked me to make inquiries to see if there would be any interest and what track would be best suited to hold the event.

I spoke to my friend and colleague at the Daily Racing Form Clyde Hirt, who was very close to Sonny Werblin, owner of Arlington Park. I asked him to mention the idea to Werblin and see what his thoughts were.

When I called Hughes in England and told him I had set his plan in motion he became very upset, telling me I wasn’t supposed to reveal any specific plans. I told him I had no other way of making inquiries unless racetracks knew some of the details of Waterford’s plan.

He was so upset about the details being leaked, Waterford Crystal dropped the idea completely. Werblin, however, liked the idea so much he decided to go ahead with it on his own, with the same $1 million purse, which was unheard of back then, to be run at a mile and a quarter on grass as stipulated by Waterford Crystal. And so the Arlington Million was born and became a huge hit from day one thanks to the heroics of John Henry and The Bart…and the big mouth of a lowly librarian at Daily Racing Form.

There have been many other great moments in the history of Arlington Park. As it did with Secretariat, the track capitalized on the popularity of a great horse at just the right time, coming up with the idea to have a race for Cigar, who was one victory away from equaling Citation’s modern-day record 16-race winning streak. They named it the Citation Challenge and once again a huge enthusiastic crowd showed up and cheered on Cigar as he put his name in the record book with an easy victory under 130 pounds.

Another coup was luring racing’s media darling Native Dancer for the 1953 Arlington Classic. The Gray Ghost was the sport’s first TV personality and he came to Arlington having won 15 of his 16 races and put on a show, coming from behind to win by two lengths and missing the nine-furlong track record by a fifth of a second. That record was shattered in 1959 when Round Table romped by 6 1/2 lengths in the Washington Park Handicap, blazing the mile and an eighth in 1:47 1/5 under 132 pounds. In his previous start he captured the mile and three-sixteenths Arlington Handicap on grass, breaking the course record, also carrying 132 pounds.

The sun may be setting on Arlington Park, but the memories will live on. Not only will its demise create a huge void for racing in the Midwest, but also in the hearts of racing fans who witnessed many of these great moments and the parade of superstars who have come there since the days of Gallant Fox, Omaha, Equipoise, and Discovery. It is just another example of racing consuming itself from within, piece by piece until there is little left but a handful of corporate owned tracks.

That is why I will continue to write about the sport’s glory days and how racing used to be. As Ishmael said at the end of Moby Dick, “I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”

Photos courtesy of Steve Haskin, Arlington Park. Secretariat photos available at 


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