All afternoon we sat together in the million room at Arlington International Racecourse, flavoring the iced tea with lemon wedges and the present with visits to the past.
"What do you think of Paris Nights?" my mother asked, as she looked over the past performances of the horses in the second race. "Dad would have picked him, I'm sure of it."
I glanced up from the
Daily Racing Form
. She was smiling. " Paris Nights is hurting," I said. He had broken his maiden in his only start last year and in his only 1989 race, at Belmont Park on July 12, he finished ninth, beaten 21� lengths. "Something's wrong with the horse," I said.
She shrugged. My mother, Betty, is 83, and she reads Luke in the Bible and Mike Royko in the
every day, so she's not without an opinion on both ancient and current events—particularly at the racetrack of a soft July afternoon. She persisted, gently. "He's coming down in class," she said. "He ran for $17,500 in New York and he's running today for $5,000. Dad would have bet on him for that. And he was a hunch player. Remember? He bet on names, and he would have liked Paris Nights."
I should have listened, as it turned out, as I often should have listened to my father. I bet $2 on Forli Joy, who had all the speed, but Paris Nights ran him down at the half-mile pole and dashed off to win by 2� lengths.
"See what I told you?" she said, laughing.
I had to laugh, too, listening to her talk and think like my father. She looked very sweet and innocent sitting there, in her pink-and-white print dress and white jacket—her reading glasses tipped on the bridge of her nose, her gray hair framing the delicate bones of her face, and the Form and the racing program set out on the table in front of her. I had made a promise to myself, months before, that I would take her to the new Arlington when it opened this summer, knowing what the old place had meant to her back in the days the family spent there. The old Arlington Park, on the same site in Arlington Heights, Ill., burned down on July 31, 1985, collapsing at the age of 58, and its only survivors, I imagine, were a few hundred ghosts and my mother and me.
Now here we were, on July 27 this year, at the new Arlington. It had opened on June 28 to perhaps the longest, heartiest cheers that ever attended a track's unveiling. "Prettiest racetrack in the world," veteran California trainer Charlie Whittingham said. Better than Santa Anita? Saratoga? Belmont? "Nothing else is even close," Whittingham said. "You've got to see this place to believe it."
Chicago businessman Richard Duchossois, the track's owner, is not saying how much the rebuilding cost, but the tab was reportedly between $120 million and $200 million. And Whittingham was right. It's a summer palace fit for a czar, with a sunken walking ring behind the grandstand, flanked by sweeping lawns and beds of impatiens and wax begonias. The rear of the clubhouse and grandstand rise above all this, in tiers of balconies along which bettors can stroll and look down at the paddock below. At dusk, from a distance, the enormous white grandstand with its lights and glass windows resembles a great, luminous ocean liner marooned on an Illinois plain. And inside, my mother and I, passengers from a more distant shore, were trapped in the past.
The afternoon was an evocation of echoes, a return to some kind of youthful grace, with those old names playing in the ear, one after another, like wind chimes faintly heard. "Remember Summer Tan?" my mother asked, glancing at the pedigree of Maram in the sixth. He was out of a mare by Summer Tan. Why, of course! In a furious, whip-cracking drive to the wire in the 1956 Arlington Handicap, Summer Tan yielded the lead to Mister Gus as if it were life itself, only to lose by a length at the wire. Remember Abbe Sting and Fleet Argo? Remember Doubledogdare and The Warrior? Delta and Sir Tribal? Queen Hopeful and "Greek Game? Bardstown and Leallah?