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Arlington Park bugler plays swan song at track
By Sheila Ahern | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 5/3/2008 12:15 AM

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Piecing her bugle together as she ran, Bonny Brown zipped through the Arlington Park tunnel 50 feet ahead of the horses and a few minutes before the start of Friday's first race.

"The traffic was horrible," she said, out of breath. "I just made it."

Brown, 34, made history in 2003 when she was hired as the first female bugler to perform at a major thoroughbred track. Her last performances will be this weekend, and when she leaves she'll still be the only female bugler in the country.

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Brown married track spokesman Dan Leary, who recently took the job of spokesman at Lone Star Park, a horse track outside Dallas.

Brown will join Leary in Texas, occasionally bugling at Lone Star. She'll also tour with her band, in which she plays trumpet.

She may return to Arlington for the Arlington Million on Aug. 9.

Five years ago, Brown accepted the Arlington gig not knowing a thing about horse racing. Today, she throws around terms like "new starters" and "two-year-fillies" like the pros.

And she's got the timing down pat. She wasn't late on Friday -- she was exactly on time.

"I used to get here really early," Brown said. "Probably too early."

After graduating from DePaul in 1995 with a degree in music, Brown played trumpet in several symphony orchestras and bands, including the Southwest Symphony, Big Fun, Park Avenue and her own band.

"When I heard Joe Kelly (the former bugler) was retiring, I thought I'd give it a shot," said Brown, an Aurora native. "It's a steady gig. Most musicians won't ever get that."

Kelly was the track's bugler from 1981 through 2002. Brown beat out a pool of 18 contestants to get the Arlington Park job.

Brown plays "Call to Start" about 10 minutes before every race and gets nervous before every race. Wearing a black top hat, white riding pants and a red coat, she belts out the song four times while horses flank around her and head to the starting gate.

By most standards, Brown is small. Next to racing horses, she's minute.

"I'm scared of horses," she said during a break. "Those are some big, powerful animals."

Brown doesn't mind the hot summers; it's the cold weather that's tough for bugle players, she said.

"Ever see that scene in 'A Christmas Story' when the kid gets his lips stuck to the pole?" said Brown, pointing to her bugle. "That's why I use plastic covers on the mouthpiece. You have to."

Struggling to keep her hat on straight, Brown belts out her song during the second race. The wind doesn't bother her, and she waves to the crowd after her song.

"It was just like this on my first day here," she said. "I could barely hold the bugle up. I'm going out like I came in."