In the early 1980s, track officials, headed by the late Joe Joyce, announced their intentions to stage a race with a purse of $1 million. Few could fathom that idea. Shug McGaughey, who was at Arlington during that early portion of his career, said as much during a teleconference this past Tuesday. But August 30, 1981, with NBC Television on hand for the inaugural running, the Arlington Million was born. It wasn’t just going to succeed as a matter of course--it was going to have to do something to capture the imagination of the racing fan, and did it ever. Then a 6-year-old, John Henry had the ability to put the race on the map, but the Arlington turf course was extremely wet, and Big John was well back in the field early on, but began to roll late. With ‘The Shoe’ in the irons, John Henry rallied relentlessly on the outside, but had The Bart to reel in. Georgeff’s call only added to the excitement: “The Bart, John Henry....John Henry, The Bart....can’t split ‘em!” NBC even called the winner, or at least who they thought had won, but the picture said otherwise and, after two minutes, seven and three-fifths seconds, the Million was off to a legendary beginning.
|'Against All Odds' statue overlooking the Arlington paddock|
New York-based horses dominated from 1993 to 1995, with Star of Cozzene (in the absence of the scratched Lure), the dominating Paradise Creek (Pat Day’s first Million in 10 tries) and the barnstorming Awad proving best.
A beautiful and strking Brazilian-bred chestnut, Sandpit became a Million fixture--his big, bald face, towering presence and talent made a fan out of me. He could not resist the sparkling turn of foot from Awad and settled for second in 1995 and was third behind Mecke and Awad the following season. He returned for another crack at the age of eight in 1997, but Marlin, looking to become the first horse to win the Secretariat and Million in consecutive seasons, was nursed along masterfully by Gary Stevens and led throughout, with Sandpit a gallant runner-up.
In the Y2K Million, all signs pointed to Juddmonte’s Chester House and trainer Bobby Frankel. Now, it wasn’t the best group ever assembled for the big race (carried a $2-million purse while staged for the first time in three years), but there was never a doubt in the mind of this railbird that he would emerge victorious. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a horse feeling as good each time I laid eyes on him. He was just always full of himself, prancing around in the morning and was very vocal. He basically invited you to bet on him and he did not disappoint on raceday to give Frankel their first of two wins in the span of three years (Beat Hollow, ‘02).
After being shut out on those three mid-90s appearances, Richard Mandella brought the 8-year-old gelding The Tin Man to Chicago for the 2006 renewal. A popular front-runner, the homebred for Ralph and Aury Todd, sixth in the 2003 Million, had registered one of America’s best efforts in the G1 Dubai Duty Free in ‘06, but was let go at 5.50-1 in that year’s race. Allowed to travel the opening six furlongs in 1:15, he sprinted the final half-mile in :46 1/5 and was never in serious danger. He was gallant in defense of his title in 2007, but was run down late by the Canadian-based Jambalaya, who made trainer Catherine Day Phillips the first and only woman to send out a Million winner.
European-based horses have reigned supreme over the last four years, with only Gio Ponti having struck for America in 2009 while finishing second to Debussy in 2010 and behind Cape Blanco again last year.
So, the stage is set for another International Festival of Racing. It’ll be me and the kids watching from New Jersey, but I admit, it always makes me just a little bit homesick. Happy Million Day!