August 22, 2017

A Day at the Races: Arlington Million Magic

by NICOLLE NEULIST

In 2013, I went to the Arlington Million for the first time. I wore jeans and a t-shirt, just like I’d wear to any other thing I did to occupy a Saturday afternoon. I was expecting to visit, check a Big Chicago Event off my bucket list, and go home. I wasn’t expecting that day out to change the course of my life. But, here we are: leading into the fifth Million I’ve attended, and my first since I started working at the racetrack.

After the 2013 Million, I couldn’t keep myself away from the track. I started going every two weeks, then every week, and then I stopped caring whether my non-racing friends thought I was going to the track too much. My Twitter feed became mostly horse racing chatter, and the following January I started a blog as a project to keep me engaged through the Hawthorne off-season.

That April, a friend who worked at Hawthorne told me that if I kept hanging around the track for long enough, someone would give me a job. It was a nice thought, but I didn’t take it all that seriously. After all, in a sport where everyone seemed to grow up in it, who was ever going to hire someone who didn’t dive in head first until age thirty?

And yet, I had the bug. I kept going to the track. I kept on writing. In 2014, for my second Million, I took the entire week of vacation from my day job in information security so I could spend it writing about the Million. I had a media credential for the first time but spent almost as much energy stressing out over what to do with it as I did actually using it. I watched the more seasoned media as intently as I watched the horses. I learned logistics, etiquette. I noticed that far more horses came in and out through the mile pole gap than the horse tunnel. I nervously introduced myself to trainers, assistants, writers and photographers I only knew from Twitter. I spoke up at the post-race press conferences if I had a question.

For someone who had only been regularly coming to the races for a year, it was a lot. I wanted to make the best of it, to take good pictures and write useful things, but I feared being exposed as a newbie or a poser. Fortunately, that first try went well. I helped my readers navigate the Million, managed not to make a fool of myself, and made some friends in the press box and at the rail.

Over the next couple of years, I kept doing the same thing: taking the entire week off from my job and spend it where I wished I could be full time: the racetrack.

Despite Million Week being the most frantic week of the year, it was the one week a year when I also had some time to reflect over how my life in racing had grown and changed since the year before. At the rail during workouts, when the action ebbed, my mind always wandered to how my racing life had changed since the previous Million. Each year, I felt like less of an awkward cub, and a little more like I actually belonged. A lot of that came from spending every weekend at the racetrack all year, save a few in the dead of winter when they don’t run here. I learned the language, the horses, the cadence. I became increasingly able to trust my eyes, as compared to the year before.

That last part, about having faith in my observations, has become more important than ever. It turns out, my friend was right a few Aprils back and my hardwired pessimism wasn’t. I may have been late to the game, but after several years of watching and writing and spending so many of my days at the races? A door I had never dreamed of when pondering my racing life during those mornings opened earlier this summer.

I walked through it, and I’m now working as a chart caller for Equibase at Arlington Park. I love it. I am watching races in more meticulous detail than ever, and learning a new form and style of writing about the sport. It’s exciting — and an awe-inspiring responsibility — to have a hand in the official record of the sport.

In some respects, Million Week has been much like my last couple of years. I’m still trying to do as much observing, describing, handicapping, and writing as I can. I’m still arriving at the track before sunrise each day, photographing the horses and making mental notes about how each of the stakes horses are moving over the course. I spend the mornings at the rail, the afternoons at the computer, and my evenings going to bed early enough to get up at 4:45 the next morning and do it over again.

Once the race week resumes on Thursday, my routine will diverge from the one I’ve followed the last few years. I’ll still be at workouts, and have an hour or two to write or go through my pictures. But then, I go upstairs, unpack my binoculars and a pad of paper, and get to work.

I can no longer scrutinize horses in the paddock, snap photos of the winner as they get a hose-off before their win photo, chat with a trainer right after their horse runs off the screen. I miss them. Instead, I’ve had to get used to experiencing racing from five stories up instead of down at the rail, and keeping a cool head. There won’t be time to spend the final furlong gobsmacked with a longshot’s winning rally, as I was during Hardest Core’s 2014 triumph. There won’t be a slice of pizza after the post-race interviews, as there was in 2015 after Illinois’s favorite son won the big race.

Instead I’ll be a few floors above, one of a small team responsible for crafting the permanent record of a world-class day of racing at Arlington. I didn’t have to take Million Week off my job this year, because now my job is one part of making it happen.

4 Comments on A Day at the Races: Arlington Million Magic

  1. I couldn’t be happier for Nicolle. She has a mind like a steel trap, an incredible appreciation for the sport and the horses, and a rare talent for making both accessible to even the newest fan. She works hard and deserves every accolade she receives. The sky is the limit and I am enjoying watching her rise!

  2. This was a very unique and interesting article. Something about your writing took me back to the days when I first fell in love with the track. In those days, the whole back page of the Form was stories and columns with insider views and information. You would have fit right in!

  3. I loved the article. It got me thinking about the track and I can remember parked on the shoulder of Rt. 53 watching the fire as Arlington burned to the ground. Then the miracle, watching them rebuild the track for the upcoming Million. The owners pulled it off and it turned out to be a fantastic day and memory.

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