O'Donnell: With "Louisville Million," Churchill Inc. dissed the legacy of Dick Duchossois

  • Two Emmys, (4), with jockey James Graham, narrowly beats Domestic Spending, ridden by Flavien Prat, during the 2022 Mr. D. Stakes at Arlington Park in Arlington Heights.

      Two Emmys, (4), with jockey James Graham, narrowly beats Domestic Spending, ridden by Flavien Prat, during the 2022 Mr. D. Stakes at Arlington Park in Arlington Heights. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer, Aug. 14, 2021

Updated 8/17/2022 12:55 PM

CHURCHILL DOWNS INC. HAS a market capitalization that touches $8 billion.

That's a nice number for a corporation that specializes in little more than gaming pies in the sky and shareholder value.


But its bosses can no longer get this crazy little thing called horse racing right.

In Arlington Heights, Euclid Avenue has turned into a death row as one of the most lush turf courses on the planet awaits extinction.

There is no compelling reason that Arlington Park isn't up and running this summer.

Other than perhaps that CDI CEO Bunker Bill Carstanjen and crew might not have been able to gather their kind of Insane Clown Posse to hover around it.

So this past weekend, the Arlington Million was moved to Churchill Downs, site of one of the most troublesome grass surfaces in America.

And in the end, matching Million Day '21 at Arlington, the event was nothing more than an embarrassment for Carstanjen and Co.

LAST AUGUST AT AP, with the honorable Dick Duchossois approaching his 100th and final earthly birthday, Carstanjen's crew tried to get clever.

They're not very good at that.

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The cut the purse of The Million to $600,000. And, to "honor" Duchossois with the cheapened centerpiece, they renamed the race "The Mr. D Stakes."

But they still billed the afternoon as "Million Day" -- without a Million.

Had Duchossois been in his prime, anyone who came up with such low-rent distortion at a staff meeting would have been unemployed within hours.

Instead, the lame event went on. Few really cared about it.

TO CAP THE BIZARRE FAREWELL, a track hireling named Anthony Petrillo petulantly stormed into the press box approximately 90 minutes after "The Mr. D" and ordered nine members of the media -- almost all working on deadline -- out.

No coherent reason for the snit was given since there was no coherent reason.

Petrillo, CDI and Arlington were national laughingstocks.

Again, Insane Clown Posse stuff.


SO, THE TABLE WAS SET for transplanted Million Day '22 in Louisville.

That despite dangerous irregularities with Churchill's re-sod turf course.

A new top was planted last October. Racing on it this spring proved highly problematic.

Those flaws reached tragic proportion in June when a $50K claimer named Gingrich was coasting to victory and his legs suddenly slid out from underneath him.

Jockey Jimmy Graham did his best to avoid catastrophe.

But it wasn't enough for the crippled horse. He was vanned off and "humanely" destroyed.

And turf racing at CD was suspended -- until last Saturday.

INITIALLY, CARSTANJEN AND HIGHWAYMEN planned to move the Million, the Bev D., the Secretariat and the Pucker Up to their base track.

But the Secretariat and the Pucker Up were quietly ditched.

Then, rather than being run consecutively -- as had been tradition at Arlington -- the Million and the Bev D. were spaced 3 ½ hours apart.

That was so the entire turf rail could be moved approximately 24 feet in after the Bev D.

In theory, that would give the eight Million starters fresh -- and safer -- primary lanes to run on.

TO PROMOTE THE BIG DAY, Carstanjen underling Tonya Abeln -- who appears to have power alleys of racetrack recipes and paddock hats -- announced that the oval would be offering "Chicago-style hot dogs" and "Italians beef sandwiches."

Apparently blown away by such imaginative inducements, an on-site paid attendance of less than 3,000 was reported by authoritative sources.

This at a Camptown that regularly claimed pre-pandemic Kentucky Derby attendances of 150,000-plus.

THE CD MILLION ITSELF came across as a colossal afterthought.

The turf looked awful.

The tarnished relic played out as "a merry-go-round race."

That means a few speed horses got out and no one made any chancy moves.

A race like that suggests jockeys were prioritizing their own safety.

A 4-year-old named Santin was among the leaders from the start. He made a mild move to first down the stretch and won.

As racetrack theater, the nine-furlong exhibition was about as exciting as watching Abeln stir up a pot of burgoo on a morning TV show in Kentuckiana.

SO, CARSTANJEN AND SUITE MATES apparently think they've preserved the legacy of the Arlington Million.

They haven't. Last weekend, travesty prevailed.

It's a lot easier to program slots with return rates of 94% or so.

They took the one day of the Arlington season that meant the most to Dick Duchossois and diced it into disrespectful tripe.

On their quarterly earnings calls, the CDI scavengers may continually boast of increased profits and fertile new gaming jurisdictions.

But Carstanjen, Abeln and carnivores will never have the one thing that set Richard Louis Duchossois apart.

And that's class.

• Jim O'Donnell's Sports and Media column appears Sunday and Thursday. Reach him at jimodonnelldh@yahoo.com.

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