Horse racing means different things to different people. For some, just going to the track and trying to pick winners is suffice. For others, trying to handicap each race remains the reason why they come to the track. For people like me, I’ve always been drawn to the big race, the big purse, the graded stake. To me, any race that offers a purse of $100,000 or more deserves attention. Obviously, the bigger the purse, the bigger the attention, the bigger the prestige.
A watershed moment occurred in 1981 when the operators of Arlington Park in suburban Chicago came up with the idea of the Arlington Million. It was the first race in North America to offer a total purse of $1 million, hence the name Arlington Million. No race had crossed that threshold before, not even the classics—the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness or the Belmont. NBC carried the race live “back in the day,” and three years later, the Breeders Cup was born. Did the Arlington Million serve as the catalyst for the Breeders Cup? It may be a bit of stretch to say so, but it does warrant some credit, because it proved that big events can grab the attention of Americans.
As a nation, we like big events, and for the most part, we’ll watch big events. We enjoy the Super Bowl, the Daytona 500, the Masters and other “one-offs.” The inaugural Arlington Million was a horse race and most Americans probably didn’t recognize any of the horses entered in the 1 1/4 turf race. But, the purse they did notice. A nice even amount. One million dollars, which today is still a good chunk of change, but in 1981, it was a great chunk of change.
The Arlington Million was ahead of its time. Even today, the only races that offer more than a $1 million purse are the Kentucky Derby ($2 million) and eight Breeders Cup races, including the Classic ($5 million). Venerable races like the Travers, the Preakness and the Belmont still offer “just” $1 million purses. So, imagine the attention the Arlington Million received when it created a $1 million race shortly into Ronald Reagan’s first term as president.
The Arlington Million has survived. It did skip two years in 1998 and 1999, and in 1985, a fire destroyed most of the grandstand, but 25 days later, the Million was run, a tribute to its perseverance. As with most stakes races, all the great trainers, jockeys and owners have both attempted to and have won this great Grade 1 stakes race. John Henry, the great gelding won this race twice. Fittingly, he won the inaugural by a nostril over The Bart at age six, and then three years later, at age nine, he prevailed again in what would be his final year of racing.
This year’s Arlington Million is the signature race of a great day of racing at Arlington Park. There are four other stakes races, a showcase of great turf racing, a surface that doesn’t get enough attention in this country. Defending champion Little Mike is entered as is Optimizer, Indy Point and the frontrunning Nate’s Mineshaft. It’s a win-and-you’re-in race; the winner automatically qualifies for the Breeders Cup Turf later this fall at Santa Anita.
If you follow horse racing, the three words, “The Arlington Million,” resonate. They mean something, they represent a major moment in thoroughbred racing, and today, 33 years after the first Arlington Million, it still holds a special place in the history of horse racing.