Through most of last week at Arlington Park in Chicago's outer suburbs, it appeared that the recipe for an Instant Classic went like this: take $1 million, 14 assorted thoroughbreds accustomed to running on grass and add water. So copiously did the last ingredient fall from the sky, at one point it seemed that trench warfare, not horse racing, would be the most suitable activity on Sunday, Arlington Million Day. And on the road to Arlington, indeed, the equine casualty list had overtones of World War I as, one by one, the star-quality grass horses from Europe and the U.S. that had been scheduled to appear were reported missing and hastily drafted recruits were flung in to plug the front line.
Which, cynics might say, is what you get when you try to buy your way to glory, as Joseph F. Joyce Jr. did last year when he announced that Arlington Park would host the richest thoroughbred horse race in history. Joyce, president of the track, was, in effect, speaking for the parent Madison Square Garden Corporation and its financial muscle—he is also a senior vice-president there—when he declared $1 million at stake, with $600,000 going to the winner. The finest thoroughbreds in the world would be winnowed out, so that the final 14 runners would represent the best everywhere.
An idea whose time has come, thundered the publicists. Horse racing is a sport with a global following, and up there in the sky, all those satellites were a-twinkling, waiting to flash the international Arlington Million, not just to the U.S. and Europe, but to Hong Kong and Australia. It would be the ultimate race.
It was a fine idea on paper, but in a corner, that curmudgeonly old figure, Boring Old Reality, muttered that few of the best American horses liked to run on grass, and that money alone was unlikely to deflect the finest European thoroughbreds from the Arc de Triomphe to be held in Paris only five weeks after the Million. And isn't there a race called the Washington, D.C. International, based on a similar global concept, that has been running since 1952 but has never set the racing world ablaze?
September 6, 1981
In the run-up to the Million it looked increasingly as if the old grouch was going to be proved right. Temperence Hill, who had robbed Spectacular Bid of the Triple Crown by winning the Belmont in 1980, ran in New York two weeks ago in a minor grass race, to check out what the stuff was like—and came in next to last. Scratch Temperence Hill. Then Bold Tropic and Caterman, both running in California but representing, respectively, South Africa and New Zealand, injured themselves. Scratch them.
The next to drop out was the top English entry, To-Agori-Mou, whose trainer announced that his horse was really a miler and that Arlington's mile and a quarter didn't suit him. Then Premio Nobel, a Chilean horse, developed a fever, In Fijar, from France, started to cough, and Sea Chimes, from England, kicked a hole in his stall and injured a leg.
All of which led to alarums and excursions, as well as a trauma-induced transatlantic call to Sean Shelley, who works for Peden's International Transport, a kind of travel agency for horses. It was 8:30 p.m. in London, Friday, Aug. 21, barely eight days before the race, when Sean was told to immediately make arrangements to get a Saudi-owned, English-trained horse, Bel Bolide, aboard the London-Chicago flight on Tuesday.
"I knew I had large problems," said Shelley, with admirable restraint. To begin with, he had to obtain U.S. visas for the grooms and blood tests for the horse. He solved the first problem by persuading his girl friend to stand in the long visa line outside the U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square. Meantime, Shelley arranged the other paper work and the blood tests. On Tuesday, Bel Bolide made his flight.
But Shelley's troubles were far from over, as he discovered when he arrived at Arlington at 5 a.m. on Wednesday. Now, Shelley learned, he was required to arrange Illinois licenses for nine grooms, assorted jockeys, owners and trainers—a total of 35. (Two other English-trained horses, Madam Gay and Fingal's Cave, as well as a couple of 2-year-olds were shipped out on the same flight.)
There was no quick end to his problems, either. He was out at Chicago's O'Hare airport early last Sunday morning to meet Lester Piggott, who was flying in just hours before the race to ride Madam Gay. Piggott, who enjoys the same kind of seniority and prestige in English racing that Bill Shoemaker does in the U.S., had to be photographed and then interviewed by the Illinois stewards before he could be declared persona grata. "I hope they streamline the paper work in future," said Shelley with feeling.
To many observers, indeed, it seemed a great deal of trouble to go through for the likes of Bel Bolide and Madam Gay, neither of whom is rated highly in English racing circles, though the latter, a filly of uneven performance, won the Prix de Diane this season and ran second to the great Shergar in the King George VI Stakes at Ascot in July.
Of the other Europeans, there was Argument, the French colt who last year won the Washington, D.C. International and was narrowly beaten in the Arc, but who fared poorly in 1981. And there was Fingal's Cave, who was notoriously ineffective in heavy going, which seemed likely to be underfoot on Sunday. But all of them were overshadowed by a U.S. horse who, so his exercise rider said, "gallops like an old cow." This was Luis Cenicola, and he was speaking of John Henry, America's finest grass horse. But Cenicola meant nothing derogatory. "Other horses are tough on themselves," he went on, meaning that John Henry works superlatively well on the right occasions—he had won a career $1,864,510 and threatened both Affirmed's $2,393,818 and Spectacular Bid's record $2,781,607.
Only the rain, it seemed, could stop John Henry. "The only trouble is the condition of the track," said assistant trainer Eduardo Inda, pointing out that John Henry has always had a firm grass surface in California. Nevertheless, the late-week odds in London went from 7-2 to 2-1. At the same time, the odds on Arlington's favorite son, Rossi Gold, had been shortened by proud Chicagoans to 6-1 at Ladbrokes of London.
Inda mentioned Paul Mellon's Key to Content—like Rossi Gold a big, strong horse—as John Henry's biggest competition. "He loves the wet," said Inda.
On Saturday, however, something strange happened in Arlington. The sun came out. And when it continued to shine on Sunday, the odds firmed yet again on John Henry—in London they had moved to 7-4, and at the track to 9-5. There had also been more attrition in the ranks. First the Canadian horse, Ben Fab, was scratched, and then that cosseted traveler, Bel Bolide, dropped out because of an abscessed hoof, which must have yielded a moment of exquisite irony to the beleaguered Shelley. By post time the grass had dried out a little, but it was still tall enough to make a good cash crop if cut for hay. "Favors the Europeans," Shoemaker said in the paddock before he swung his leg over John Henry. As it happened, Shoemaker was within about an eighth of an inch of needing that alibi.
After John Henry broke—he had drawn the outside position—he was away wide and in eighth place at the first turn. Battling it out for the lead were Key to Content and a 40-1 shot, Kentucky-bred The Bart.
"I thought I'd be lying second or third, not that far away," Shoemaker said after the race, and trainer Ron McAnally agreed. "I didn't want him to go out on the pace," McAnally said, "but I didn't want him that far back."
It wasn't until the last bend that John Henry came into contention, charging through an inside gap that Piggott and Madam Gay had opened. At that point, Shoemaker said, he thought he would win handily—"There was an awful lot of horse still left in The Bart, but I thought I would be going in front easy."
He didn't, and right up to the wire the bright red silks of Eddie Delahoussaye on The Bart stayed in the lead. If the Arlington Million had looked at times like a great brouhaha over nothing much, the great stretch run at the end made up for a lot. "I thought I nipped him at the wire," Shoemaker said, but nobody else at Arlington Park could be even that certain until the finish photo was examined. It showed there wasn't much more than one horse's hot breath in front—and that breath was John Henry's.
Whatever happens in the future to Arlington's Million, his hard-earned $600,000 took John Henry's career earnings to $2,464,510 and put the Bid's record in jeopardy. John Henry—"Jack" to his trainer—now goes back to California and a rest. The horse, in fact, turned out greater than the race.