Editor's note: Here is a reprint of Mike Imrem's column on the first Arlington Million. It appeared on Aug. 31, 1981, in the Daily Herald.
Just moments after Bill Shoemaker rode John Henry to victory by a nose in Sunday's Arlington Million, the jockey of runner-up The Bart let his frustrations spill out.
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"Eddie Delahoussaye looked over a me," Shoemaker chuckled later, "and yelled 'you little s.o.b.' "
Shoemaker has been making his fellow jockeys curse him like that ever since he began taking money out of their pockets in 1948. That's OK, though, because for every disparaging word he has heard, there have been many more compliments from promoters whose races he's turned into classics.
What better example than the inaugural Million? Up until 3:46 p.m. Sunday, the much-ballyhooed "world championship of thoroughbred racing" was a flop. Well, maybe not a flop, but certainly not the rousing success promoters hoped for when the idea was born a year ago.
About everything that could go wrong went wrong, some of it due to mistakes by management, some of it due to fate, all of it so frustrating because this was a horse race dearly trying to make a name for itself.
First, some of the best and best-known horses dropped out. Then came the unfounded rumor of a contagious horse virus at Arlington Park. Then rain slopped up the turf course. Finally, a smaller crowd than expected turned out for the race.
So by 3:46 p.m. Sunday, post time for the Million, it appeared the best thing that could happen to this event was nothing at all, because nothing certainly would be better than all the bad somethings that had taken place to that point. The richest race in thoroughbred history deserved better.
Then something marvelous happened. The race was run and in just 2 minutes, 7 3/5 seconds -- the time it took Bill Shoemaker to steer, coax, cajole and whip John Henry to victory with a mad rush down the stretch -- the Arlington Million went from no good to so good. So very, very good. Great, in fact.
To understand just how great, listen to Shoemaker and, while you do, remember that the man has ridden in more than 33,000 races, won 8,054 of them, with 834 of the victories coming in stakes races, and 169 of them being worth more than $100,000 in prize money.
"It's probably the greatest race I've ever ridden in," the Shoe told a worldwide TV audience. Later, he explained the comment by saying "from the standpoint of international flavor, the kind of field, the exciting finish … I don't think there's ever been a better race."
Shoemaker didn't mention this, but the Million picked up some much-needed prestige by the very fact a great jockey -- possibly the greatest of all time -- rode the winner. That's like the Yankees winning the World Series, the Celtics winning the NBA title, Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters.
Shoe didn't do it all by himself, of course. He had a splendid hunk of horse under him in John Henry, now the second leading money winner of all time. But the way the Million developed, lesser jockeys could have been out of the money even on such a great animal.
"The way it turned out," said Ron McAnally, John Henry's trainer, "it was very important we had Bill Shoemaker on our horse today. He has more experience than any other rider and he's well-balanced over a slippery surface. He doesn't do any unnecessary moving and the horse responds to him."
Shoemaker added, "I'd say about 50 percent of the races go the way you expect them to when you're in the gate. You gotta be able to adjust your thinking, and sometimes you have to do it very fast. A lot of years of riding and experience enable you to do that."
Adjustments were necessary Sunday because Shoemaker, starting from the far outside post position in the 12-horse field, couldn't get John Henry where he wanted early in the race. He expected to be first or second after a quarter-mile but instead was eighth as late as after a half-mile.
Then Shoemaker had to come a long way to catch the fast-breaking Key to Content and, down the stretch, 40-to-1 shoe The Bart. But catch them he did, using Madam Gay almost like a running back uses a pulling guard. John Henry moved ahead of The Bart a stride from the wire and won in a photo finish.
Believe it or not, Bill Shoemaker claimed he had butterflies waiting for the official result to be posted. And, more surprising, before the race too. After all these years, and at the age of 50, and with all those victories to his credit, and with the more than $80 million his mounts have earned, he still is nervous before the big ones.
"Before the race," said Shoemaker, who begged off two mounts he was to ride earlier in the day, "I stayed down in the jocks' room and played three games of ping pong. Sandy Hawley was my partner and we won two out of three games. I'll tell you, we're all pretty competitive down there.
"Sure, I still had butterflies just before the race. But these are the kind of races I enjoy, the kind that makes it fun. These races keep me going. The others (in the day to day grind) aren't as much fun, but that's part of the game. If you want to ride you have to take the bad with the good."
This was definitely the good, so Shoemaker announced it was time for him to adjourn for a gin and tonic. He felt so good about winning a million-dollar race, in fact, that he said he might celebrate a good while before returning to riding back home in California.
You can bet promoters of the Arlington Million would be happy to pick up his tab. Bill Shoemaker, as much as anybody, turned their troubled horse race into a classic.