ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. — Who knew when the Arlington Million became the first horse race with a seven-figure purse 36 years ago that it would one day turn into a glorified prep for bigger and better competition?
Welcome to racing’s 21st century, when the dream of the late Joe Joyce of a $1 million race in this Chicagoland suburb turned into an anachronism. It’s no wonder, what with the $16 million Pegasus World Cup and the $10 million Dubai World Cup big-footing the racing landscape.
But the Arlington Million soldiers on, highlighting what remains the top turf meeting in America this side of the Breeders’ Cup. Oh, wait. That, too, is another one of those race cards with a stack of money and therefore a more attractive goal.
As the richest races get richer, they have turned Arlington’s International Festival of Racing into a way station to places like the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, British Champions Day and the Melbourne Spring Carnival. Along with the Breeders’ Cup they are all potential targets for horses that hit the board Saturday in the three Grade 1 races here at Arlington Park.
Handicappers would be well advised to consider where the dozen horses in the Million may be heading if their owners and trainers look favorably on their performances this weekend.
For morning-line favorite Deauville (7-2), the Million may be a stepping stone to the British Champions Stakes and the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Not that Coolmore’s people will actually say. About the only comment that trainer Aidan O’Brien’s traveling assistant Pat Keating offered on Friday morning was that “the horse is 100 percent, shipped in well and I couldn’t be happier with him.”
Better luck so far for the Irish mega-stable and its three horses on Saturday’s card than for Godolphin. Its 5-year-old gelding Scottish (8-1) was scratched from the Million after he was diagnosed Thursday with a fetlock injury. That not only cost him a chance at his first Grade 1 victory but also a return trip in October to Australia, where he finished second in last year’s Group 1 Caulfield Cup.
Less exotic a goal but no less prestigious is the Breeders’ Cup. The winner of the Million automatically qualifies for the $3 million Turf championship in November at Del Mar. And Saturday’s $600,000 Grade 1 Beverly D. is a “win-and-you’re-in” qualifier for the $2 million Filly & Mare Turf. The 5-year-old Argentinean mare Doña Bruja (7-2) brings a five-race winning streak into the Beverly D., including a victory here in the Grade 3 Modesty Handicap last month.
Then there is the Godolphin colt Permian (9-5), which figures to be in a showdown with 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner Oscar Performance (8-5) in Saturday’s $400,000 Grade 1 Secretariat Stakes for 3-year-olds. If he does well here this weekend, he may be among the contenders in Europe’s biggest races this fall.
“He was very unfortunate not to win his Group 1 in France in the Grand Prix de Paris the last time,” said assistant Charlie Johnston, son of British trainer Mark Johnston. “He was beaten a nose, and it was a tough defeat to swallow. We’re here now to try to get that Grade 1 win under his belt. If we do, he’ll be in races like the (British) Champions Stakes at the end of the year. Even the Arc could be a possibility. But priority number one for the horse is to get a Grade 1 win on his C.V. If we can do that then we’ll look at some real big targets and have some fun toward the back end of the year.”
Yes, there are plenty of international horses just passing through – although fewer than in previous years. Most of the featured races have seen their purses reduced. All except the Million, that is. It just wouldn’t have the same ring to it if it were called the Arlington Seven-Hundred Fifty Thousand. The smaller prizes are a result of the shrinking flow of dollars into Illinois racing, which has unsuccessfully pleaded with the state government to get help from slot machines. All the while racing here is losing business to neighboring states that are more flush with financial footing.
Although Arlington Park remains one of the most attractive and pristine sports venues in the country, the races it hosts on an everyday basis are deteriorating with each passing summer. The very future of the track seems to hinge on its patriarch – 95-year-old Richard Duchossois. He is still the boss here, but Churchill Downs actually owns the place. The palpable fear is that once “Mister D.” is gone, Arlington Park’s operation could be downsized or completely eliminated.
But at least for one day every summer, Arlington Park is the place to be. About 40,000 people will fill the stands and provide a snapshot of what racing here used to be when the Arlington Million stood alone as the richest race in the world – and not just a stop on the way to somewhere else.
“It’s still a main plan for some of the horses,” said assistant Lucie Botti, who is married to U.K.-based Italian trainer Marco Botti and saddles long-shot gelding Fanciful Angel (30-1) in the Million. “Arlington is still on the agenda of lots of people. It’s a great track, a very fair track, and it’s still good prize money.”
And Botti added one ingredient that belies prize money.
“The Europeans,” she said, “have been quite lucky here.”