In the 27-year history of the Arlington Million, we've just about seen it all - legends, miracles and mishaps.
In 1981, when it was the first of its kind, the million-dollar purse was a big deal. It has since been equaled by the Triple Crown races, and dwarfed by the Breeders' Cup and Dubai World Cup, but the Arlington Million remains special.
I've witnessed roughly 15 Arlington Millions in person. I can't claim John Henry, but I've seen the replay a dozen times and still think The Bart beat the legend in the famous inaugural running.
In most cases, Arlington doesn't attract the big guns from Europe, but the International Festival does have a worldly flavor every year. Four of the last 10 Million winners were puddle-jumpers.
Last year, Gio Ponti defeated perhaps the deepest Million field ever, and on Saturday he will attempt to become the first horse to perform a successful encore.
The Turf and Older Male Champion of '09, Gio Ponti has eight graded stakes wins on his resume, five of them grade I's, and he's banked over $4.1 million. Still, many racing enthusiasts question whether he's "the same horse."
Prior to his recent win in the Grade I Man 'O War at Belmont, a race in which he overcame suspect fractions and a wall of traffic in the stretch, he had lost five races in a row. But there were excuses for all of those defeats, and here they are:
• Oct. 3, 2009: G1 Turf Classic Invitational at Belmont - A boggy turf course can be used as a major excuse. He still gutted out second behind a highly unlikely longshot in Interpretation.
• Nov. 7, 2008: G1 Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita - He finished a rock solid second to the undefeated Zenyatta, and there's certainly no disgrace in that.
• Feb. 20, 2010: Ungraded Tampa Bay Stakes - He crossed the line second behind the very legitimate miler Karelian in a race that he needed over a distance that was too short for him. Trainer Christophe Clement was using the race as a springboard to the G1 Dubai World Cup. Oh, and by the way, G3 Arlington Handicap winner Rahystrada, considered one of his main threats in Saturday's Million, was third that day, 23/4 behind the turf champ.
• March 27, 2010: $10 million G1 Dubai World Cup - He finished a deceivingly good fourth out of 14, and was forced to close over a speed-favoring Tapeta surface. The fortunate winner that day was Gloria de Campeao, whom Gio smoked in last year's Million.
• June 5, 2010: G1 Manhattan at Belmont - He lost by a half-length to his stablemate Winchester, and would have won if not for a big-time traffic jam.
It's likely that Gio Ponti is every bit as good as he was one year ago. He's going to take a lot of beating in today's title defense, but, stranger things have happened.
There are few.
According to Alastair Donald of the International Racing Bureau, the best of the Europeans is likely the Shadwell Stable's Tazeez.
"Relatively lightly raced for a 6-year-old, Tazeez progressed through the handicap ranks, winning the valuable Cambridgeshire Handicap at Newmarket in 2008 and the Group 3 Earl of Sefton Stakes in April 2009," Donald explained. "Without a win since, Tazeez has nevertheless run well in exalted company, and put up arguably the best run of his career when third in the Prince of Wales's Stakes at Royal Ascot behind Byword and Twice Over. Possibly not suited by a step up to 12 furlongs last time, the return to the 10-furlong Million trip should suit."
Shadwell also has the Million "wise guy" horse in Tajaaweed. A Group III winner in England as a 3-year-old, this son of Dynaformer kept some salty company overseas. He only raced once as a 4-year-old, and recently returned from an 11-month vacation to make his U. S. debut. He returned with a bang, scoring a visually impressive win over the Arlington green. A troubled fifth in a third-level allowance at Churchill, he took several steps up the class ladder for the G3 Arlington Handicap, but proved he certainly belonged with a fast-closing third-place finish. He's headed in the right direction.
Just as Well ran second to Gio Ponti in last year's Million, but he was second behind Rahystrada when attempting to defend his title in the G3 Arlington Handicap. Both horses have a fighting chance.
Paddy 'O Prado is an absolute standout in the Secretariat, although Workin For Hops and the Euro raider Wigmore Hall are viable chalk alternatives. The sleeper here is Mister Mardi Gras, who actually galloped out well in front of "Hops" after finishing second behind that foe in the G2 American Derby.
Sharpen your darts for the Beverly D. Your best bet here may be to just hit the "all" button in the multi-race wagers and hope for a longshot, or you could go sentimental and punch a cold Festival Pick 3 ticket Paddy to Mr. D to Gio.