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posted: 8/15/2013 8:25 PM

Arlington Million still holds special place in horse racing

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  • John Henry was still ready to run moments after winning the inaugural Arlington Million in 1981.

    John Henry was still ready to run moments after winning the inaugural Arlington Million in 1981.
    Daily Herald File Photo


Even the most casual of horse racing fans can remember the buzz when it was announced that Arlington Park would be hosting the world's first million-dollar race in the summer of 1981, a race dubbed the Arlington Million.

"It was so attractive to racing fans," recalled Tom Rivera, who at the time was the public-relations director at Arlington before going on to become president of the Woodfield Convention and Tourism Bureau.

"It was pretty spectacular at that time, and it attracted a very large number of racing media -- I think we credentialed about 300."

Then, in the inaugural running when John Henry nosed out The Bart at the wire -- leading to the famous "The Bart or is it John Henry on the outside?" call from track announcer Phil Georgeff to a packed house locally as well as a national TV audience -- well, it took the event to a whole other level.

"With John Henry winning, it created a bubble that really drove the race," Rivera said. "And it's certainly still the highlight of the racing season in Chicago."

But is it still the event it once was? Is the luster still there heading into Saturday's 31st edition of the race?

The short answer? It depends on whom you talk to.

"It's not nearly as relevant as it once was," said Marty McGee of the Daily Racing Form, who has covered every Million since 1993. "The Breeders' Cup overshadows all.

"Nonetheless, it's important to the people here in Chicago; otherwise you wouldn't have as many people turn out.

"The European interests, they still like it; otherwise they wouldn't be here."

And the Europeans are here in droves again, with 14 horses spread throughout the big four races on Saturday's card, including five set to go postward in the Million.

"It's very, very high on the international calendar, said Nick Clarke, former managing director of the International Racing Bureau who has yet to miss a running of the Million.

"If you consider that back in Europe, you've got York (England), you've got Deauville (France) -- you've got all the main national races going on in Europe during that August period just like here in the United States with Saratoga and Del Mar.

"The fact that you've got 14 horses here for four races is an indication of how important this festival still is. You've got horses from England, Ireland, France and Italy represented.

"So don't tell me this is not premier league. It started the whole game of international racing back in 1981, and it's still top of the premier league."

But is it the same feeling here in the United States? Is the Million overlooked here in our back yard?

"I wouldn't say so," McGee said. "A guy like Dale Romans (trainer of 2012 winner Little Mike), he said it was one of the top races he's always wanted to win."

Added Clarke: "From all the media that I've read and listened to, the International Festival of Racing is still way up there in terms of interest."

WGN-TV and WGN America will broadcast the race live (5 p.m.), meaning once again there will be a national audience for the Million.

That wasn't always the case because after NBC and ABC/ESPN stopped covering the race there was a lull in national-television coverage.

"It's a positive that WGN is picking it up for an hour," Rivera said. "That has to say something about its value."

As does the history of the race itself, from John Henry's win in the inaugural race to Little Mike's heroics last year.

"A lot of us from my generation remember when it first came out and how great it was with John Henry and all that," McGee said. "That kind of lingers in the back that, yes, this has been a great race and probably always will be."

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