Thursday, August 16, 2012

Million Memories

   Having grown up just a few furlongs from the corner of Euclid and Wilke Avenues in suburban Wheeling, Illinois, Arlington Park was in my blood, or at least my consciousness, from a very young age. Curiously enough, it was a promotion put on by a local grocery store chain that involved horse racing that really spurred my interest in my early teens, and I would be known to grab the Sun-Times or the Tribune in the morning, flip right to the previous day’s charts and reconstruct the races in my head--a Phil Georgeff in junior form, if you will.
   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

   I was in front of my TV that day--I was just 14 after all--but I made my first live Million appearance in 1983. John was back for a second time at age eight. I didn’t know a whole lot about handicapping at the time, was betting in mostly $2 increments and a show parlay and seeing just how long I could keep it alive was borderline euphoria. The 1983 Million attracted its typically diverse bunch, though on this occasion and well before a race restricted to 3-year-olds was in place, Tolomeo was in from Europe for a young Luca Cumani and jockey Pat Eddery. I heard something on track or read something somewhere that Tolomeo liked good-to-firm ground, so I began rifling through his PPs and saw he’d had some strong performances over off going. So I figured what the hell, two bucks to show. John came to win the race in the final furlong, but Tolomeo got through at the fence and registered a monster upset at 38-1 (video below--it’s nine minutes, but it’s worth a watch with cameos from Crist, Feldman, Christine, Pricci, Scott, etc!). Well, I shoulda had the exacta (I think it was in excess of $400), but at age 16, my $17.80 show ticket was worth at least a few packs of grape Bubble Yum. Tolomeo remains the lone 3-year-old to have won the Million (nearly all run in the Secretariat these days). John Henry would get his revenge the following season, as he defeated the outstanding filly Royal Heroine, who would go on to add the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Mile a few months later.


   The complexion of the ‘85 Million changed July 31. I was weeks away from entering college at the University of Illinois, and I heard a report on WBBM-Radio, the Chicago CBS affiliate, that a small fire had broken out in the turf club at Arlington Park. But it seemed nothing to worry about, as the report indicated that racing was to go on that day as scheduled. One look to the skies to the south and west of my house told a different story, as a tower of deep, black smoke rose from the track. I was compelled to get into my car and get as close to what was going on as possible. I parked somewhere near the train station and watched through a chain-link fence as the original grandstand, which contained plenty of fuel for fire, burned out of control. What was left the next day was a mangled mess of melted steel--the pictures were eerie as horses galloped on the track with the backdrop of sheer devastation. Surely the race could not or would not go on, but construction crews worked 24/7 (or more) to clear away the old track and constructed a tent village, and Aug. 25, over 35,000 filled the makeshift tent city to watch Teleprompter land what has come to be known as the “Miracle Million.”

   While I was away at school, my interest tailed off a bit, but Estrapade became the first and only female to land Million spoils for Charlie Whittingham (his second of three victories) in 1986, and the Andre Fabre-trained Mill Native pulled the upset for Cash Asmussen when the 1988 renewal was  shifted to Woodbine to allow for full-time construction of a new grandstand at Arlington. Golden Pheasant gave Whittingam his third Million for owners Bruce McNall and Wayne Gretzky in 1990, and Tight Spot provided Ron McAnally a 1991 success to go along with John Henry’s pair.
   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).

Chester House

   The 2003 and 2004 runnings each featured disqualifications. In 2003, Storming Home was on his way to a clear-cut victory when he ducked out very suddenly nearing the wire, throwing Gary Stevens to the turf. The veteran reinsman suffered multiple injuries, including a collapsed lung, but was back riding inside of a month. Sulamani was ultimately put up to the victory. In 2004, Powerscourt was first under the wire, but stewards ruled he’d caused interference in the stretch run and was demoted, making Kicken Kris, the 2003 Secretariat hero, the official winner. (This, by the way, disappointed me not one little bit, as it really fattened up the Festival Pick 3!). Powerscourt was the undeniable Million winner the following summer.
   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!

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