After nearly two days of steady rain, the temperature on a clear night in Chicago last Saturday was a comfortable 73°. Throughout most of the city the serious bowling was just ending and the movie houses were emptying when, at 11:27 Central Daylight Time, a dozen 2-year-old colts set off after America's richest Thoroughbred racing purse, the $366,075 offered in the seven-furlong Arlington-Washington Futurity.
At the start a chestnut named Insubordination swept to an easy two-length lead under the steady guidance of Bill Shoemaker. But midway around the far turn John Rotz slipped Sonny Werblin's chestnut Silent Screen through on the inside of Insubordination, and that was the race. Silent Screen steadily improved his position and won the Futurity by eight lengths in the very fine time of 1:22 3/5. Favored Irish Castle was sixth, beaten nearly 12 lengths. In addition to the winner's purse of $206,075, Silent Screen earned the right to be called the best 2-year-old now racing and, therefore, a likely Kentucky Derby horse. But the real racing news from Chicago last week concerned the hour at which Silent Screen ran, not what he had won.
Although Thoroughbred meetings have succeeded under the lights at such minor league outposts as Scarborough Downs, Latonia and Fairmount Park, as well as the West Virginia-Ohio junior circuit, the eight nights of racing just concluded at Arlington Park constitute the first such display at a major mile-and-an-eighth track in the United States. And, since it occurred in Chicago, it was, naturally, sponsored by 48-year-old Marje Lindheimer Everett, who, like her father before her (the late Ben Lindheimer), runs racing at Arlington with an iron hand and a big stick (SI, Aug. 20, 1962).
Technically, Marje no longer owns Arlington or its sister track, Washington Park, now devoted entirely to harness racing. The Lindheimer-Everett holdings, known as Chicago Thoroughbred Enterprises, Inc., were bought for upward of $32 million earlier this year by the Gulf + Western conglomerate. One of the first things Gulf + Western did, however, was to ask Marje Everett to stick around and run Arlington. Not in the business of losing money (last year Gulf + Western, whose major interests include real estate, sugar, Paramount Pictures and a cigar company, did $1.31 billion worth of business), the conglomerate shared Marje's view that to make money you have to spend it. It promptly helped her spend about $12 million to build a 13-floor hotel on Arlington property, another $2 million on grandstand construction and an additional $1.8 million to install lights.
September 14, 1969
For several years Marje has been telling everyone that she wanted night racing, in order to bolster Arlington's sagging daytime attendance, but it wasn't until the tail end of Arlington's 103-day run that she got final approval from the Illinois Racing Board to throw the switch. The immediate result was an increase in attendance of some 10% and an avalanche of argument from horsemen. Not unexpectedly, Marje had the first word, and no one doubts for a moment that she will have the last. "I can be pretty bullish at times," she said matter-of-factly last Friday evening as she sat in her private dining room awaiting the night's attendance figures. (When they arrived they showed a crowd of 15,427, as opposed to 11,133 on the same Friday afternoon a year ago.)
"Lots of people attack your motives," Marje went on. "I've been sincere in my motives about racing and have stayed in racing only because I felt something could be done to improve it. Racing's complacency has made it a sick industry, and I want to give it a transfusion before the patient dies. Racing attendance is off practically everywhere. Hollywood Park averaged 5,000 more people in 1965 than it did this year. Santa Anita averaged 10,000 more people in 1947 than it did this year, in a community that must have tripled or quadrupled in population in that span. Tracks boast of their healthy financial status because the mutuel handle is holding up. Well, why wouldn't the handle increase when you keep on adding races and installing different betting gimmicks? I insist that the mutuels are of secondary importance to the attendance. Build your attendance and everything else, including the mutuel handle, will fall into place."
The way to increase attendance the Marje Everett way is to follow the lead of the harness-racing people and turn to major night racing. She points out with obvious pride that she put $5.5 million into Washington Park and business went up 145% in five years. "I remember the voices of doom about night baseball," she says. "When you look back on it, night baseball saved baseball. The way racing is going now, Thoroughbred racing is catering to the unemployed while harness racing is catering to the employed. What the devil is so wrong with night racing? Would these big shopping centers stay open at night if they didn't think it would improve their business? Would movie houses increase their ticket prices after 6 p.m. if they weren't aware that they could do more business at night? The trotting people looked at this thing realistically some time ago, and now we've got to do the same thing."
Owner Ogden Phipps, who had made plans to ship Wheatley Stable's Irish Castle to Arlington for the Futurity before the night-racing experiment began, doesn't like the idea of running under lights but apparently does like the idea of shooting for a big purse. Many of his Jockey Club contemporaries felt that their chairman could have made his protest more effective by flying Irish Castle back to New York before the Futurity, but Phipps' answer to this was, "We'll run, but only because we're out there. I'd never go out there under these circumstances and probably won't enter anything out there next year. Marje's argument, as I understand it, is that she's doing the public a favor by racing at night, because in the afternoon only the rich, the presidents of companies or the unemployed can go racing. Whether or not this is true—and it wouldn't appear to be—what justification is that for not racing on Saturday afternoons when presumably anyone who wants to can attend?"
Jockey Club member Alfred Vanderbilt, who did not have a Futurity starter but who always has some pretty firm convictions about the state of racing and those who run it, says, "I have nothing against running at night. In fact, if we had done it in New York years ago we would have been in a lot better financial shape than we are now. For one thing, we would have seriously hurt the night trotting game, and might even have put them out of business. If you want to look at it realistically, the only thing against night racing is a personal matter. A community might be somewhat irritated by the inconvenience of night racing, but otherwise it's personal—meaning that a lot of people in racing itself, like owners, trainers and members of the so-called Establishment, simply don't want to spend their evenings at the racetrack. The regular fan couldn't care less. He probably likes it just as much at night as in the daytime, and I agree with him. I happen to believe that the real reason a lot of people like Saratoga so much is that the track is just five minutes from where we all live."
Arlington Park horsemen, being a hardy lot, took the night programs in stride, mostly because they knew they would only have to endure them for a little over a week. "If she had sprung this on us a few weeks earlier," said one tired trainer, "most of us would have bailed out as fast as we could have gotten stalls anywhere else." Backstretch help, long abused on racetracks everywhere in this country, have been partially compensated for their long hours by a present of $10,000 from Marje Everett's personal account. Each starting horse in every race is awarded $15, and trainers have their choice of pooling that among all the stable help or giving $10 to the horse's groom and the remaining $5 to the hot-walker.
"With increased attendance," says Marje, "we'll eventually have more income and will be able to offer larger purses, which in turn will obviously benefit the horsemen and their help. I think it's unnatural to ask a man to get up at 4 in the morning and go to work at 5. If the harness people can train during the daytime, why can't the Thoroughbred people? As it is now, we keep our track open until noon, as opposed to our old closing time of 10 a.m., and we could keep it open all afternoon if the trainers wanted it that way. If stable help didn't have to be at work so early in the morning, more of them could live away from the barns and lead a more normal family life. Everyone knows it's at night that stable help are more apt to get into trouble—drinking and women at the barns. Horsemen now get Sundays off when all the shops are closed. Big deal."
The new routine is easier on jockeys than on trainers, says Shoemaker, "because most jocks don't have to get up early in the morning. I'm playing more golf than ever before, and I'm all for night racing if it helps the sport and provides more income for the people in it. People resent anything new. Over the long run, if this thing catches on, trainers will just change their training schedules, and I don't think they'd find it that difficult to adjust." As for the actual riding at night, it is Shoe's contention that "horses don't run any different." He agrees with other riders who have raced under both conditions that lights provide more reliable illumination than is available on many an afternoon when the sun can play tricks on horse and rider with unpredictable shadows.
Arlington Park's experiment brought to the track hundreds of first-time racegoers, many of them young married couples in their 20s and 30s. The per capita betting slipped only slightly, from Arlington's usual $98 to $94, despite the newcomers' unfamiliarity with the sport. Concession business went up 25%, for while many an afternoon fan found it easy to get through the program with a few beers and a hot dog, the evening fan made it a point to arrive in time for the first race at 8 o'clock and got comfortable at a track side dining-room table where he not only ordered a full-course meal but also belted down some hard booze along the way.
Business at the trots at Washington Park, some 50 miles away, wasn't noticeably affected by Arlington's night racing, and it has always been Marje's contention that the Thoroughbred and harness fans don't overlap anyway.
Successful Trainer Arnold Winick, an Arlington regular, says scornfully, "The quicker they forget about night racing the better it will be. It will take all the class out of the game." Marje's husband, Webb Everett, who was originally against night racing, says, "The class has been going out of racing for 15 years. Fifteen years ago the wealthy all went racing, and as they die off there are no replacements. The only way to get class back is to educate the young."
"I must disagree," says Allie Reuben, owner of Hasty House Farm's stable. "How is this generation of kids going to instill class in racing? They know nothing about either bloodlines or the traditions of racing, and they'd be just as happy to watch a bunch of mules run around the track."
Be that as it may, and whether the horsemen or the sport's old guard like it or not, Marje Everett intends to apply for at least 73 night-racing dates in 1970. "You can't stand still in this business," she says, "and you can't win a popularity contest by running a track, either. But I want to be popular, and I want an opportunity to do something that in the long run will be a contribution to racing. Just because we don't race in New York or just because we may not have the social background of some of those people doesn't mean we should be denied the chance to contribute to the progress of a sport. Don't laugh, but I think our business will be up 50% in three years."
As the Futurity crowd scrambled off into the cool Chicago darkness, Marje straightened up her desk and rose to leave. She was tossing a winner's party in the Horseshoe Club atop the new Arlington Park Towers. "Speaking of night racing," she added with some finality, "how many of us get to bed before midnight anyway?"