08/13/2014 1:40PM

Boosting Arlington Million's purse wouldn't solve problem of short fields


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. – As with most anything else, this is the logical knee-jerk solution to the alarmingly short field for the Arlington Million: Throw money at it.

But they tried that before, and it didn’t work.

In 2000, the purse for the Million was raised to $2 million. It was the only time in race history the purse has been anything but $1 million.

The field size for that 2000 running? A mere seven, which is still the record for the fewest number of starters since the Million was inaugurated in 1981.

Now, with only seven horses set to run Saturday in the 32nd Million at Arlington Park, the track’s venerable chairman, Richard Duchossois, said he is not disappointed and that he is not considering raising the purse again.

“Million-dollar races are all over the place now,” he said. “It’s the prestige that separates this race. We aren’t disappointed. We have a wonderful group of Europeans over here.”

Even if Duchossois wanted to raise the purse, it is highly questionable whether it could happen. Forget for a moment the major implications involving Arlington’s corporate owner, Churchill Downs Inc., and how such a move might be viewed within the company; there is the looming crisis in Illinois racing involving the potential far-reaching negative effects of the evaporation of the casino “impact” money that has propped up purses for the last several years. The latter is a complex issue that brings into question the viability of the state’s Thoroughbred industry as a whole.

Whether or not the state’s longtime showcase, the Arlington Million, has become anachronistic in an ever-evolving and Breeders’ Cup-dominated age has been a subject of debate for years, with this small field for the Saturday renewal adding fuel to that fire. Also, there’s a question of whether the small field this year is not an aberration, since the race also got just seven in 2007 and 2008.

Still, casting aside issues of its spot on the racing calendar and competition from other major turf events in America and elsewhere, it would not be unreasonable for someone to argue that a purse increase might help – although clearly it would not guarantee anything, as evidenced by what occurred when the race was worth $2 million in 2000.

“We tried doubling the purse,” said Duchossois. “It didn’t make a bit of difference.”

“The $2 million [in 2000] was not done at the right time, perhaps,” said Adrian Beaumont, a director for the International Racing Bureau, the agency that recruits foreign horses to Arlington for the Million and its supporting features. “Now you have several major races in Europe run at basically the same time with considerably bigger purses [than 14 years ago], such as the Juddmonte International at York and the Irish Champion at Leopardstown.

“We typically can only get three or four horses here for the Million anyway because all the trainers there are looking at what the others are doing, and that’s what we end up with. Some major factors in favor of the Million are its prestige, tradition, and quarantine facility, and Arlington certainly does things first rate in the way they treat horsemen.

“There don’t seem to be any easy answers.”

– additional reporting by Marcus Hersh