Why the Arlington Million matters, and the legends that have been there

 
By Kimberly A. Rinker
Updated 8/10/2018 9:38 PM
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  • Legendary racehorse John Henry wins the first Budweiser Million in 1981 at The Arlington International Racecourse.

      Legendary racehorse John Henry wins the first Budweiser Million in 1981 at The Arlington International Racecourse. Daily Herald file photo

  • Gio Ponti with jockey Ramon Dominquez crosses the finish line and wins the 27th Arlington Million at Arlington Park in 2009. Dominquez won his second Million in 2012 aboard Little Mike.

    Gio Ponti with jockey Ramon Dominquez crosses the finish line and wins the 27th Arlington Million at Arlington Park in 2009. Dominquez won his second Million in 2012 aboard Little Mike. Daily Herald File Photo, 2009

  • Author Kimberly A. Rinker with a Standardbred horse she owned and drove named Poco Hank.

    Author Kimberly A. Rinker with a Standardbred horse she owned and drove named Poco Hank. Courtesy Kimberly A. Rinker

  • Author Kimberly A. Rinker driving in a harness race at Pompano Park in Florida and winning with a horse named Little Patch.

    Author Kimberly A. Rinker driving in a harness race at Pompano Park in Florida and winning with a horse named Little Patch. Courtesy Kimberly A. Rinker

  • Author Kimberly A. Rinker

    Author Kimberly A. Rinker

Editor's note: Kimberly A. Rinker has been involved with horse racing since 1981, as a writer and participant. A licensed trainer-driver of Standardbreds, Rinker represented the United States in the 1995 International Drivers Championship in Moscow, Russia. Rinker is also an award-winning journalist whose features have appeared in publications including Hoof Beats, Horseman & Fair World, Harness Edge, Sports Eye, and Illinois Racing News. She's the author of 10 books, including Chicago's Horse Racing Venues, Arlington Park Racetrack, Immigration from the Dominican Republic and An Adventure Guide to Switzerland.

The 36th running of the Arlington Million will bring a throng of horse racing aficionados from North America and beyond to witness the Windy City's premier million-dollar turf test.

Although no longer the richest race globally or nationally, the Arlington Million has a rooted foothold in a thoroughbred racing world saturated in tradition and elegance.

Since its 1981 inaugural running at the Chicago area's racing château, the Grade 1 Arlington Million -- named so because it was the first race to offer a $1 million purse -- annually lures the racing world's best equine athletes to compete over Arlington's green carpeted, 1¼-mile turf course.

As a further testament to the Million's place in the international racing scene, the winner automatically qualifies for the Breeders' Cup Turf race this fall.

These many years after the whiskers of John Henry and The Bart had to be separated by photo finish film, the Million has retained its status as one of the world's most prestigious, legitimate and grandiose events in thoroughbred racing.

Consider that it was a truly international event from the get-go, as The Bart, who was foaled in Kentucky by a French sire, out of a British mare. His career began in Ireland, with triumphs in the Grade 3 Royal Whip Stakes at the Curragh and the Ulster Derby at Down Royal as a 3-year-old in 1979 before venturing stateside in 1980.

Nearly half of all Arlington Million winners have included thoroughbreds foaled in Britain, Ireland, France, Germany and Canada, with ownership connections found in the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Japan and Australia. Those owners have included art dealers and lawyers, along with British, Jordanian and Saudi Arabian royalty.

A gaggle of rugged runners have graced the Million turf on more than one occasion -- beginning with the mighty John Henry, who won more than $6.5 million during his lengthy career, winning the Million twice in three attempts. The Pizza Man, the only Illinois-bred to win the Million in 2015, also raced in the classic on three occasions. Gio Ponti won the Million in 2009 but finished second in his next two attempts to a pair of Irish-bred horses: Debussy in 2010 and Cape Blanco in 2011.

Then, there's North America's horse racing elite. The best trainers and jockeys on the continent have all plied their wares over the Arlington grass in sweltering summer heat -- starting with Bill Shoemaker in the inaugural Million riding the immortal John Henry for trainer Ron McAnally. Chris McCarron piloted John Henry to a second Million score in 1984 after narrowly missing in 1983, and Tight Spot's 1991 triumph gave McAnally his third Million victory.

The only other trainer to win three Million crowns was Charlie Whittingham, who did so in 1982 with Perrault, in 1986 with Estrapade, and in 1990 with Golden Pheasant. D. Wayne Lucas has won two Arlington Millions, with Steinlen in 1989 and Marlin in 1997.

Another trio of trainers have two Million wins to their credit: Bobby Frankel (Chester House in 2000 and Beat Hollow in 2002), Aidan O'Brien (Powerscourt in 2005 and Cape Blanco in 2011), and Chad Brown (Real Solution in 2013 and Beach Patrol in 2017).

Six of the sports' most successful riders have won the Million twice, including Hall of Famer Laffit Pincay Jr., who steered 1982 winner Perrault and 1991 victor Tight Spot. Cash Asmussen was aboard 1988 winner Mill Native, owned by Detroit entrepreneur C.N. Ray, founder of Sea Ray Boats, and 1992 winner Dear Doctor. Both Steinlen in 1989 and Star of Cozzene in 1993 were ridden to victory by Jose Santos, while Gary Stevens was aboard winners Golden Pheasant in 1990 and Marlin in 1997. Jerry Bailey was hoisted into the irons on winners Chester House in 2000 and Beat Hollow in 2002, while Ramon Dominquez guided Gio Ponti and Little Mike to the Million winner's circle in 2009 and 2012 respectively.

Oh, there have been celebrities as well: Hockey great Wayne Gretzky and former NHL LA Kings owner Bruce McNull's Golden Pheasant wore the Million crown in 1990 after the roan son of Caro stormed to victory.

The fact the connections of international equine stars are willing to battle trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific shipping, quarantine, alternative climates and training environments, and variances in medication regulations, speaks volumes on how the Arlington Million is perceived in the eyes of the world thoroughbred community.

Obviously, it's not just the $1 million pot -- where they winner takes home $600,000 -- but much more.

These days, a $1 million purse is a far cry from the near $27 million offered over two days by the Breeders Cup events, the $30 million offered on Dubai's World Cup Day; and the $16 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational held at Gulfstream in January. And, unlike many of its counterparts, Arlington garners its Million funds via nominations, entry fees, and a percentage of fan's wagering dollars.

Yet, deservedly, the Million prevails, with the victor forever enshrined in horse racing history at America's most beautiful racecourse, on the international Sport of Kings stage.

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