About 20 minutes -- and nearly 30 years -- after the Miracle Million was held at Arlington Park, trainer Edward Graham stood transfixed as he watched a replay of yet another Miracle Million.
There was his horse, Hardest Core, swinging wide into the stretch, and then taking on and pulling away from the much-ballyhooed Magician in the final 100 yards to capture the 32nd running of the Arlington Million in front of a stunned crowd of nearly 32,000 who had dismissed the 4-year-old gelding by sending him off as the longest shot in the field of seven at 11-1 odds.
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As his tough-as-nails horse battled with Magician again on the replay, Graham instinctively put his arm around winning jockey Eriluis Vaz and wiped a tear from his eye with his other hand.
He obviously was still stunned that -- after what he, his owners the Bentley family and Hardest Core himself had been through just to get here -- there they were being saluted as champions.
"Words can't explain what a great feeling this is," said Graham, 43.
If you had asked any of Hardest Core's connections in November if they thought they'd be getting toasted by Arlington chairman Richard Duchossois as Million champs, they all would've thought you were crazy. And rightly so since the fact that Hardest Core is even alive today is a miracle in itself.
That's because shortly after being purchased in November, Hardest Core was gelded … and very nearly didn't survive.
"When we bought him, I always had intentions of gelding him," Graham said. "We got him gelded, and I turned him out the next day. He was just laying in the field and when I finally got to him, I saw all his intestines were coming out and he was throwing himself around -- he was in a lot of pain.
"We couldn't get him up and we weren't sure if he was actually ever going to get up. But by some miracle he got up, and we got him on the trailer."
They transported him to a medical center, where Graham was told by veterinarians that they had to cut "about 15 to 18 feet" of Hardest Core's intestines during the emergency surgery. "We didn't know if he would make it," Graham admitted.
Talk about a horse with intestinal fortitude …
"Three days after the operation he's back in the feed tub eating," said Graham, shaking his head. "He's tough."
That he is. And now he's also a first-time Grade I stakes winner and most likely on his way to the Breeders' Cup, thanks to that powerful move turning for home.
"Me and Vaz talked about it; everybody thought we were going to be the speed, but Vaz thought he could settle," Graham said. "And Vaz settled him, and he showed a big kick and got it done."
Magician, who went off as the 9-5 favorite, looked to be home free after taking the lead from front-runner Side Glance (8-1) turning into the stretch. But he couldn't outkick Hardest Core in the shadow of the wire.
"I had a nice position on the rail," jockey Joseph O'Brien said. "I had a good trip, no excuses."
Not on a day that belonged to a warrior like Hardest Core.
"I knew he was going to make his run," Vaz said. "I have to thank the owner and the trainer -- they've been so supportive.