an incantation of the present

Horse racing is a game with a past, and it’s a game obsessed with its past. People, myself included, love a story about the good old days. Jim O’Donnell’s recent column in the Daily Herald imagines the racetrack, after Saturday’s sunset, coming alive with the past. It’s a fun thing to imagine, something far different than the most likely reality of my upcoming Saturday night, which is likely to feature one too many tear-diluted beers at Jimmy D’s as all of us who venture across the street swap stories of our own pasts, and of the uncertain future.

But, my story at the racetrack began after much of that glorious past ended. I’ve met a few of the people and horses O’Donnell mentions: Roger Brueggemann, The Pizza Man, Marty Nixon, Eddie Perez. Almost all of what people talk about when they talk about Arlington happened before my time, though.

By the time I started coming around, in the summer of 2013, racing in Illinois was already on shaky ground. Calls for a gaming bill had been falling on deaf ears for a decade and a half, perhaps even longer, and the sun was about to set on the casino impact fee. As much as I wanted to tune it out, I couldn’t completely shut my ears to the thrumming underneath, that Arlington’s final days were coming some year.

Yet, I kept showing up. The history was nice, and I tried to learn as much of that as possible. But, history wasn’t going to be what kept me coming.

I still saw something glorious in the present. Something was enough to capture my eyes and imagination, enough to keep me coming back, enough to not only convince me to spend so much of my free time thinking about horse racing, but to finally turn my back on a “respectable” career in computer security and instead become a professional racetrack denizen.

There’s Frostbite Falls. He caught my eye more than any of the horses who ran in the Arlington Million later in the afternoon when I fell in love with horse racing. He didn’t win his race, but the compact, nearly-black son of City Place won my heart…and some different races along the way.

There’s the Illinois-bred class born in 2011, now ten years old, to whom I still owe a far more detailed love letter than I can write tonight. They were two-year-olds in the summer and fall of 2013, just getting their racing careers started as I began to figure out the game as well. Iker’s big white blaze kept crossing the wire second, assuming he kept his jockey; he figured it out by the end of his two-year-old year, kept trying, and was at his best ever at age eight. Sweep E Prado pranced around the paddock before the Jim Edgar Illinois Futurity, a big grey with a pink nose, seven words that could describe his sire as well: Illinois legend Fort Prado, who I fell in love with through his babies. Try Arguing Harder’s name spoke to me, as a recovering lawyer; I never got to see him win in person, as he only seemed to hit the wire first when he shipped out of town. Swarm, Sea Treaty, Purely Given, Flashdance Road, a million names that take me back to my early days as a railbird.

There are so many more through the next eight years, as present slowly became history.

Saint Leon, who only got better as the years passed.

Puntsville, the striking grey who won my heart and so many races..

Dani Nikki and Nikaluk, whose battles were the stuff of legend.

Super Nova, the first Three Hour Nap debut winner who bore the weight of my confidence, and carried it first across the wire.

Hapman, who didn’t need a rider to get his morning exercise in.

He’s a Council, who almost killed me.

Le Dimanche, who I mourn every time I gaze down the Arlington stretch.

Goneghost, once an awkward three-year-old with stringhalt, who grew into a swift grey streak.

Dabo, who swallowed the stretch like it was nothing at all.

Gramercy, who rediscovered her home at seven furlongs on the Arlington main.

Purr Sea, so happy to relax with her head on my shoulder.

This weekend, as Arlington races three more days before a future somewhere between uncertainty and oblivion, many people’s incantations will sound like Equipoise, Secretariat, even The Pizza Man. Mine will sound like these, and like a hundred more who will break from the folds in my brain and race through my mind over the next three days and beyond. Their names define my eight years and counting at the racetracks in Chicago, and they are the horses who remind me that Chicago racing does not just have a past, but also a present.

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