Editor's note: With the 30th running of the Arlington Million this weekend, we thought you might enjoy a look back at the first Million ever held. The column was published on Aug. 30, 1981, the day of the race.
Over here, in America, Bill Shoemaker is considered the greatest jockey of his time, if not all time. He's already been in horse racing's Hall of Fame for 23 years and still is difficult to beat at age 50.
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Over there, in England, Lester Piggott is considered the greatest jockey of his time, if not all time. He has ridden winners all over the world and still is difficult to beat at age 45.
Which bring us to today's Arlington Million on the grass at Arlington Park. The event is many things to many people -- the world's richest thoroughbred horse race ever, the world championship of thoroughbred racing, the greatest field of horseflesh ever assembled, and so on.
But one of the most exciting, interesting, intriguing aspects of this event is that Bill Shoemaker and Lester Piggott will be competing in the same race. Both have been riding since the late 1940s, yet over the years they have been matched against each other on only a handful of occasions -- maybe a dozen, maybe two dozen, nobody seems quite sure exactly how many times.
Other jockeys in the Million include former boy wonder Steve Cauthen, hard-riding Angel Cordero, local favorites Pat Day and Earlie Fires … all in all there will be 14 excellent jockeys in the race shooting for the $60,000 that goes to the winning rider.
Shoemaker and Piggott, however, are in a class by themselves if for no other reason than length of service. Of course, there are other reasons, like Shoemaker's 10 victories in American Triple Crown races and Piggott's eight Epsom Derby victories and Shoemaker's 8,000 career victories and Piggott's nine English riding crowns and on and on.
Which is the greater of the two? The question never will be answered because too many variables are involved, such as quality of mounts, quality of competition and quality of track here and abroad. Certainly today's race, with Shoemaker on John Henry and Piggott on Madam Gay, will not settle the debate once and for all.
Still, the question always will be asked and the argument always will rage. It is both the blessing and the curse of sport that athletes are judged not only for their own style and grace, but in comparison with others. And how better to judge Shoemaker than in comparisons with Piggott, and vice versa?
"People in England know Shoemaker is good," said Paul Kelleway, Madam Gay's trainer. "But to ride on British and European tracks -- they go up and down, there's even one in shape of a figure eight, the base is never the same, no two tracks are ever the same -- well, you have to be a master, and Piggott is.
"He's the greatest we've ever seen. In a big race, he's the greatest ever. You don't ride that many Epsom Derby winners without being great. Unless they're in the same ring going blow for blow, you can't say for sure who's the best. But I'd say Piggott's the best."
Kelleway cites his man's dedication, as exemplified by his ability to keep winning a never-ending battle against overweight. Piggott is a natural 150-pounder but starves his 5-foot-8 frame down to 114 pounds to continue riding and winning. "All he has for breakfast is a cigar," Kelleway smiles.
Of course, Shoemaker's dedication also is legendary. He overcame a messy spill in 1968 that left him with, among other aches and pains, a broken femur bone in his right leg. The accident kept him off the track for 13 months but hard work and dedication brought him back to his Hall of Fame form.
Pat Day, who has seen more of Shoemaker than Piggott, says "I'm sure he (Kelleway) is a little bit prejudiced, but I could be too. Shoemaker is a polished professional who makes very few mistakes. He went to England and rode there and held his own … he goes anywhere and does good.
"Shoemaker is just a great rider. He seems to know how the race will unfold and always is in the right place at the right time. I know in the Million, Shoemaker (despite starting in the 14th post position) will have John Henry right where he wants him by the first pole."
Despite his admiration for Shoemaker -- who won on one of two mounts Saturday at Arlington -- Day agreed with Michael Phillips of the London Times that there is no way to ever determine whether Shoe or Piggott is the better jockey. The only way to tell would be to have them ride under equal conditions over a long period of time, and even that might not be decisive.
"What can one say about Lester Piggott that isn't already in the record books?" Phillips says. "And English race fans have tremendous respect for Willie Shoemaker from what little we've seen of him. His record here is incomparable and in England it's extremely good.
"Lester has been England's champion jockey nine times and is headed for a 10th time this year, and I suppose the fervently patriotic would say, 'yes, Lester Piggott is the greatest.' Objectively, however, you'd have to say he has been and still is ONE of the greatest jockeys in the word.
"It would be unkind to Shoemaker to say Lester is better, and vice versa. I'm sure they themselves would agree to that because they have tremendous respect for one another. They simply are the greatest in their own countries and have been great abroad as well."
There is a distinct possibility neither Bill Shoemaker nor Lester Piggott will be atop the Arlington Million winner today. However, merely having both here competing against one another, makes the race a little more special.