'They wanted to put Arlington on the map': Looking back at 40 years of the Arlington Million

One million dollars. For a horse race. It was unheard of at the time.

The largest purse for a horse racing history in North America was created 40 years ago. And although it was last run in 2019 when Bricks and Mortar captured the race, it has captivated race fans since its inception.

“It really developed from Joe Joyce, Robin Sheldon, Ralph Ross and Mr. (Dick) Duchossois,” said Tony Petrillo, president of Arlington International Racecourse. “They wanted to put Arlington on the map. So, this race was developed, and it was the first million-dollar race in the country.”

And there would not be a more fitting end to that first race in 1981 than a photo finish. Just like legendary track announcer Phil Georgeoff called it: “Is it The Bart? Or is it John Henry on the outside?”

It was John Henry, with the legendary Willie Shoemaker aboard, nosing out The Bart, a 40-1 longshot, at the wire in a truly exciting end to a huge payday for the owners of John Henry. That finish, which was the closest in Million history, has been memorialized in a statue with both horses just outside the paddock area and still sits there today.

The million-dollar purse and the race that went with it in 1981 did just what it was expected to do as Arlington Park began to regain its prominence not just in the United States, but in the world.

The world of racing had become a quick fan of the Arlington Million. Four international horses ran in the first race. Two years later, Tolomeo, an Irish-bred horse from Great Britain, beat out John Henry and the winner's share of the purse ($600,000) was headed outside of America for the first time.

John Henry restored honor when the 9-year gelding won the race by two lengths in 1984. John Henry is the only horse to ever win the Arlington Million twice.

With his win in 1984, John Henry became the first $5 million-winning horse. Not bad for a horse that sold as a yearling for $1,100.

But then tragedy struck just 25 days before the 1985 Arlington Million. A fire began on July 31 and when it was finally struck, nothing was left of the track. Of course, the Arlington Million would be canceled.

But don't say that to Duchossois. The Arlington Park chairman insisted the race would be held.

True to his word, Duchossois and the entire Arlington team pulled together what is now known as the “Arlington Miracle.” All the debris was hauled away, and tents and portable grandstands and bleachers took its place. Teleprompter won the race before 35,651 fans.

For the next two years the Arlington Million was run in front of these portable stands until construction began on what is the current Arlington Park. That's when the only mare to win the Million came through as Estrapade bettered the field by 5 lengths, currently the largest margin of victory.

When that construction began, the Million was moved in 1988 to Woodbine in Toronto. Mill Native won the race and posted the highest odds of any Million winner at nearly 41-1.

When the new Arlington Park was completed, the race returned to the Northwest suburbs in 1989. There Steinlen won the event, heralding a new beginning of racing in the Midwest.

Memories aplenty

There have been many memorable and some forgettable wins since then.

Pat Day, who was an Arlington favorite, won his first Million in nine attempts with Paradise Creek in 1994.

Another Chicago favorite, The Pizza Man, delivered a great win in 2015. The only Illinois-bred horse to win the Million, The Pizza Man came through and “Chicago is about to erupt,” according to track announcer John G. Dooley.

There were three disqualifications where the stewards moved the second-place finisher to the winner's circle due to interference.

In a controversial decision, Sulamani was awarded the win in 2003 after it was determined that Storming Home interfered with two other horses after getting spooked near the finish line. In a bizarre finish, Storming Home jockey Gary Stevens was knocked off the horse at the finish line. Stevens was taken to Northwest Community Hospital with a collapsed lung. He was back riding nearly three weeks later.

Kicken Kris was moved up to win in 2004. Powerscourt, which had crossed the line first, was later moved to fourth by the stewards. Powerscourt returned to glory the next year and this time won the race in 2005 without an objection.

It was the 2013 race that many may remember. Or do they?

The race was carried live on WGN. But the post time ran a bit late, and when WGN switched to a White Sox telecast, The Apache was the apparent winner. But with shades of the “Heidi Bowl,” after an objection, The Apache's win was taken down and given to Real Solution.

There have also been some disappointments along the Million journey.

After Marlin won in 1997, the race was not run for the next two years thanks to a dispute between Arlington ownership and the Illinois Racing Commission. When racing returned in 2000, the Million was, for that year alone, worth $2 million. Chester House won the race by four lengths, squeezing through on the rail.

After Bricks and Mortar won in 2019, with the shortest odds ever to win the Arlington Million, the race was put on hold last year due to COVID.

Now in 2021, with the track closing in just a few weeks, the Million will now be the Mister D. Stakes and the purse will be $600,000. It is scheduled to run on August 14th.

Will this signal an end to the Arlington Million?

“We do have the option of moving all our stakes races and our graded stakes races to some of the other Churchill Downs' tracks,” Petrillo said. “Churchill Downs is expanding its turf course, so that gives them ideal location for some of these Grade 1 races. So that would be nice to keep the quality of these Grade 1s.”

Petrillo said he would like nothing better than to keep the Arlington Million in the Chicago area.

“That's ideal,” Petrillo said. “That's the best of all worlds.”

Powerscourt, left, ridden by jockey Jamie Spencer, crosses the finish line ahead of Kicken Kris ridden by jockey Kent Desormeaux, during the Arlington Million in 2004. DAILY HERALD FILE PHOTO
  The Million Cup. Mark Welsh/
The start of the 28th Arlington Million at Arlington Park in 2010. courtesy of FourFootedFotos
Horses round the track during the running of the Miracle Million at Arlington Park in1985. Tents and bleachers replaced the old grandstand after a fire in July of that year. Daily Herald File Photo
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