It is sometimes called the most important turf meeting in the U.S. this side of the Breeders’ Cup. But is the Arlington Million card really all that?
The ingredients are certainly there. Impressive purses for three Grade 1 races that have endured for more than three decades. Horses from around the world representing the sport’s biggest powerhouse owners. A clean Chicagoland racecourse that – sorry, Saratoga and Del Mar – is the nicest in America.
So why is it that only four of 94 winners of the Arlington Million, Beverly D. and Secretariat Stakes since 1984 have gone on to win that same year in the Breeders’ Cup?
“I love this place,” trainer Chad Brown said last August after he won both the Million and the Beverly D. for the second year in a row – and the Beverly D. itself for the fourth straight time. “I absolutely love coming to Arlington. We’ve been blessed to have horses that are good enough.”
And that is part of it. When he saddled Sistercharlie’s victory in the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf, it was the second time that a Beverly D. winner had finished first in that particular race. Brown’s “good enough” horses have brought Chicago’s biggest day of racing to previously unprecedented levels.
Horse races, after all, are only as good as the horses in them. And Brown has brought back Sistercharlie and last year’s Million winner Robert Bruce to try for repeats – and himself for three-peats.
Sistercharlie (8-5) brings in a four-race winning streak and is the morning-line favorite to win again in the $600,000 Beverly D., a 9½-furlong race for fillies and mares Saturday at 5:53 p.m. EDT. Not bad for a 5-year-old mare that was on the shelf most of this year with an unspecified, career-threatening illness. But owner Peter Brant decided not to retire his Eclipse Award winner to a breeding career. At least not yet.
“Peter is a great sportsman, and he loves seeing this horse run,” Brown said after Sistercharlie’s comeback win last month in the Grade 1 Diana Stakes at Saratoga. “We were going to start her campaign a little earlier in the year, and she got sick on us. We had to wait, and (Brant) was very patient.”
The 8-5 estimate for Sistercharlie’s post-time odds seems generous. She seems more likely to be even money or odds-on in what may or may not be a showdown with Fleeting (5-2) and Magic Wand (3-1), a pair of Coolmore fillies from Ireland that have been stricken lately with second-itis.
Robert Bruce (7-2) drew the rail post for the Arlington Million on Saturday at 7:12 p.m. EDT. The biggest obstacle between him and a second straight win may be a stable mate. Five-year-old Bricks And Mortar (8-5) has won five in a row, all since coming since a 14½-month break for leg surgery. That streak includes three Grade 1s – the Pegasus World Cup Turf, the Turf Classic and the Manhattan, in which he finished just ahead of Robert Bruce as part of a Brown trifecta.
“Once again (Bricks And Mortar) exploded in the stretch,” Brown said after the Manhattan victory two months ago on the Belmont Stakes undercard. “This horse just amazes me how consistently he is finishing on the turf. He’s getting good trips, and he’s kicking at all distances. He’s a very rare horse.”
Being the titan of turf that he is, Brown also has the morning-line favorite in the $500,000 Secretariat for 3-year-olds Saturday at 6:28 p.m. EDT. But Fog Of War (3-1) finds himself in the day’s most competitive stakes with Grade 3 Arlington Park winner Faraway Kitten (9-2) and Brown stable mate Valid Point (5-1) also expected to lure a chunk of the handle.
But back to the greater scheme of things. Unwritten here is the full list horses that went from the Chicago summer to victories overseas in big races. Adelaide’s 2014 double for Coolmore in the Secretariat and Australia’s weight-for-age Cox Plate comes immediately to mind.
Sistercharlie’s pairing of victories last year came after Dank had also won the Beverly D. and the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf in 2013 – and after Little Mike won the Million and the Turf in 2012. Before that only Steinlen had achieved that sort of double, winning the 1989 Million and then the Breeders’ Cup Mile. If anything it appears that the “International Festival of Racing,” as Saturday’s card is billed, is gaining relevance for the November “World Championships.”
Futures markets validate the quality of this year’s Arlington Million card. Sistercharlie is the consensus 3-1 favorite off shore and in Europe to win the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf. Bricks And Mortar is 8-1 in Europe, according to Oddschecker, and 10-1 off shore in betting on both the Mile and the Turf.
The improving prestige of the Arlington Million stands in stark contrast to the uncertainty of racing the other 364 days of the year in Illinois. Without added revenue from slot machines, purses have dwindled. So in turn have handles, and horsemen have gradually abandoned the state.
Just last week came word that nearby Hawthorne Park will not hold its annual spring meet in 2020 so that construction may proceed on the property’s new casino. Hawthorne has already made a deal with PointsBet to offer sports betting that was legalized just this summer in Illinois.
Churchill Downs Inc., owner of Arlington Park, has yet to weigh in on its long-term strategy for the property or whether it may add its BetAmerica sports book to the track. Longtime track boss Richard Duchossois, who is 97, did not run for re-election to the CDI board, and his family has expressed little interest in maintaining his racing legacy.
So even as the Arlington Million card is catching a firmer stride in the bigger picture of U.S. racing, its future is as shaky as Illinois racing, and that has been the case for the past decade.
As perilous as that seems, at least we will always have Saturday.
Racing news and opinions
The Beverly D., Secretariat and Arlington Million will be the ninth, 10th and 11th races Saturday at Arlington Park, making them a high-profile, 50-cent Pick 3. The temptation is to bookend singles with Sistercharlie to start and Bricks And Mortar to finish. As for the Secretariat I will throw out Fog Of War since the lack of obvious pace may keep him from getting a decisive first run at the leaders late in the race. Instead I will key Valid Point (5-1), the other Brown that is coming off two lower-level wins at a mile. I will include Coolmore sprinter Never No More (6-1) extending for the first time to a mile. I will also throw in Faraway Kitten (9-2) and Crafty Daddy (5-1), two of the top three finishers in last month’s Grade 3 American Derby at Arlington.
While I do not think that Bricks And Mortar will lose the Arlington Million, I will include Hunting Horn (12-1), Catcho En Die (30-1) and Bandua (6-1) on vertical exotics. Hunting Horn has been a rabbit for Coolmore lately, but since first-call jockey Ryan Moore will ride him Saturday, that suggests different tactics in a race that might instead be led early by stable mate Magic Wand (5-1). The Argentina-bred 7-year-old closer Catcho En Die crossed fourth and was promoted to third in last year’s Million. Bandua is a course horse coming off a win as the favorite in last month’s Grade 3 Arlington Handicap.
Because English speedster Awesometank (8-1) should set an honest pace, I will put the deep-closing Sistercharlie on top of cold exacta and trifecta plays in the Beverly D. with Competitionofideas (6-1), Thais (6-1) and Magic Wand (5-1) underneath. Competitionofideas has been second in her last three graded stakes and figures to make another late charge to hit the board. Thais (20-1) was sixth to Sistercharlie in the Diana, but she was third in this race last year, so familiarity with Arlington Park should breed a nice, in-the-money price. Magic Wand has lost 11 in a row for Coolmore, but instead of her usual front-running style, she closed to finish third in this spring’s Man O’War at Belmont Park. That tactic could work again this weekend.
On a five-race winning streak, Brown’s mare Uni (5-2) is the morning-line favorite for this weekend’s $500,000 Grade 1 Fourstardave Handicap, a mile race on the inner turf for open company at Saratoga. The lightly raced 5-year-old sired by More Than Ready was a stakes winner last year on the same course, and she was a Grade 1 winner in last year’s Matriarch at Del Mar. Barclay Tagg trainee Dr. Edgar (8-1), a narrow fourth in the Grade 3 Poker eight weeks ago at Belmont Park, might bring the only legitimate pace to the race. There is reason to think that Julien Leparoux could put him on a loose lead and win going gate to wire. Post time for the Fourstardave is Saturday at 5:46 p.m. EDT.
For the uninitiated who are not keeping track of the Breeders’ Cup win-and-you’re-ins, the winner of the Arlington Million qualifies for the Turf, the Beverly D. for the Filly & Mare Turf and the Fourstardave for the Mile. The idea that connections get some of their travel and entry costs paid if they win these races is nice. But with all due respect to the carrot-and-stick approach of what is formally known as the “Challenge Series,” I doubt if any futures player is paying attention to this process. Put it this way. I cannot imagine the Breeders’ Cup turning down the Secretariat winner for the Mile.
Pardon me if I do not genuflect after seeing Wednesday’s introductory hype at Saratoga about the $20 million Saudi Cup. It is already being declared the world’s richest race before it is even run. I will admit that the involvement of the International Racing Bureau adds credibility. But last winter I wasted a lot of time unsuccessfully trying to chase down the organizers who promised – yes, promised – that this race would be run this past February. Now they promise that it will be run next February at the King Abdulaziz Equestrian Field, a racetrack with a tiny grandstand less than 10 miles from the Riyadh airport. Once I hear that connections are booking flights, I will pay serious attention.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. It appears more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. The Arlington Million in Chicagoland and the re-opening of Colonial Downs in Virginia are the subjects of the RFRP. Arlington Park TV analyst Alyssa Ali handicaps Saturday’s card that features the Million, the Beverly D. and the Secretariat. Colonial Downs vice president Jill Byrne talks about this week’s first races at the Virginia track in five years. The RFRP is also available via Apple, Google and Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts.