08/10/2005 11:00PM

Chicago gets day in the sun


DEL MAR, Calif. - These are the deep summer days of selective memory and high tolerance, when no amount of traffic, crowds, outrageous resort prices, or personal inconvenience can shake the notion that Del Mar and Saratoga are the only places to be.

The exception to the rule, however, has to be Saturday, when Arlington Park near Chicago must be considered the absolute center of the racing universe, at least for a couple of hours.

Any excuse to spend time at Arlington is valid. The track remains America's most attractive, fan-friendly plant, from its broad picnic lawns to its upscale interior, combined with a tree-lined, nine-furlong main track and a turf course that has withstood the test of ages.

It is the Arlington course that will sort out on Saturday the identity of the best male and female grass runners in North America. Kitten's Joy, whose ambitious plans apparently include the next manned space shuttle along with a number of foreign dates, must first deal with Good Reward, Sweet Return, Cool Conductor, Whilly, and Better Talk Now.

Before the Million is run, however, there will be the $750,000 Beverly D. for fillies and mares, topped by the Bobby Frankel-trained team of Megahertz and Mehlor Ainda. They will have plenty to deal with from the domestics Wend, Wonder Again, and Miss Terrible, along with the imported Sundrop, Mona Lisa, and Tarfah.

Later in the day, the $400,000 Secretariat Stakes will serve as the latest test to see if English Channel can become the next Kitten's Joy - an ambitious goal, but at least he'll have a good look at his role model.

By now, the Arlington midsummer events should be firmly institutionalized in the American racing psyche. They have withstood the onset of the Breeders' Cup as million-dollar scene-stealers (1984), the tragedy of a fire that burned down the grandstand (1985) and displaced the races to Canada (1986), and then a two-year absence (1998-99) while track chairman Richard Duchossois and the Illinois legislature butted heads over racetrack access to the casino pie.

There have been great memories generated by the Million and its co-features. Bill Shoemaker, the trainer of record, watched Fire the Groom win the 1991 Beverly D. from the bed of a rehabilitation hospital in Colorado after being rendered a quadraplegic in a highway accident. Estrapade became the only female to win the Arlington Million in 1986 with a backstretch move under Fernando Toro that still defies belief. The English colt Tolomeo slipped through along the rail to defeat a blindsided John Henry in 1983, a race that Chris McCarron would dearly love to run again.

From the start, the Million has been a chance for Europeans to ship into an accommodating racetrack for a serious purse, even though they would be facing the best of American-trained grass runners in the bargain. At the first Million, however, there seemed to be some confusion, as noted in this conversation between a group of English lads and Lewis Cenicola, John Henry's exercise rider and traveling companion.

British: "Yes, but of course this John Henry is only a handicapper."

Cenicola: "Handicapper? Handicapper! You mean, as in the Santa Anita Handicap!"

Here's a quick quiz to see who has been paying attention, and who has been spending way too much time at Johnny D's or Siro's instead of tuning into Arlington Million history. There will be no scoring, and no prizes for the winners - beyond the deep personal satisfaction of a job well done:

1) The Beverly D. is named for:

a. Beverly D'Angelo, the only good reason to watch the National Lampoon "Vacation" movies.

b. Beverly Drive, where most of California's trainers shop for their blue jeans and sunglasses.

c. Beverly Duchossois, the late wife of Richard Duchossois, whose graceful influence still informs the quality of life at Arlington.

2) The winner of the first Arlington Million in 1981 was:

a. John Henry

b. The Bart

c. Depends on when you turned off the NBC telecast.

3) The lovable plodder Awad ran well in three different Millions under three different riders. Who was the only guy to get him home first?

a. Pat Day

b. Chris McCarron

c. Eddie Maple

4) Powerscourt and Storming Home were disqualified from victory in the last two runnings of the Million. What are the odds of that happening again?

a. Possible, since Powerscourt is in the field again.

b. Unlikely, since Powerscourt has blinkers on.

c. Impossible, since Powerscourt has Jamie Spencer off.

Finally, an essay question - or discuss amongst yourselves - on the relative merits of weight-for-age, jockey overweights, and the mixing of genders:

After dismounting from the 3-year-old filly Madam Gay, who had just finished third to John Henry and The Bart in the inaugural Million, the legendary Lester Piggott was buttonholed by an American TV reporter. Madam Gay carried 117 pounds, after being assigned just 113, and was beaten barely two lengths for all the money.

"Lester, where do you think she would have finished without the overweight?" wondered the innocent reporter. Piggott's reply came with a withering glare:

"A lot farther back."