08/10/2005 11:00PM

History waiting to be written


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - During the middle of rainy Wednesday training hours there was a man in a nondescript untucked polo shirt standing alone at the edge of a local trainer's Arlington barn. Through Ron McAnally you could trace a lot of history.

History keeps coming up this summer. This is the 20th anniversary of the Miracle Million, when the old Arlington Park went up in flames and came down in rubble, and they still ran the race three weeks later.

McAnally missed that one. But he won the first Million with John Henry, and won another with John Henry three years later. McAnally added a third Million with Tight Spot in 1991.

"John should've won it three times," McAnally said. "Tolomeo snuck up on him in 1983. It felt good, that first Million."

And if any Arlington history buffs can remember an appreciably deeper Million than this, pipe up.

The 1 1/4-mile race drew a field of 10 - all the best grass horses in the United States plus a couple of good ones from across the Atlantic, including Powerscourt, who ran the streak of Million inquiries to two when he was disqualified from first to fourth last year. His offense was trifling compared to Storming Home's finish-line implosion in 2003.

McAnally brought with him this time Sweet Return, the current beast of the West. But Sweet Return may be no better than third or fourth choice, with 2004's grass champion, Kitten's Joy, the likely favorite.

The Million got another boost Wednesday, when trainer Graham Motion said Better Talk Now was flying from Baltimore to Chicago on Friday to start in the Million instead of Saratoga's Sword Dancer. Better Talk Now won last year's Breeders' Cup Turf over Kitten's Joy and Powerscourt.

"I think the fact you had rain out there was huge," Motion said. "It's very dry right now at Saratoga, and the course is really favoring speed. I think the bottom line is, if we get there and get to run a truly run race and get beat, so be it. But if we run [at Saratoga] and don't have a fair chance, we'd probably be kicking ourselves."

Better Talk Now and the other stretch-runners should get a fair shake. Whilly, wire-to-wire winner of the American Handicap last out, is a free-running horse best on the lead.

"I think that's one of his main assets, natural speed and stamina," said trainer Doug O'Neill.

Sweet Return, who breaks two spots outside Whilly, also has natural speed, but can be placed anywhere.

"A lot of people think he needs the lead, but he's come from last place," said McAnally.

Sweet Return had body soreness when he finished eighth here last year. But if he is better this year, so is Kitten's Joy, who ran faster winning the Secretariat last August than Powerscourt did in the Million.

"I think he's training better this year," said trainer Dale Romans. "He's bigger and he's stronger."

Kitten's Joy, who has the rail, underwent off-season knee surgery, but came back strong when he finally made his 2005 debut July, winning the Firecracker Handicap.

"Originally, I thought he would need the race, but I think he was further along that time than I thought he was," Romans said. "To come home in 10 and change the last eighth of a mile - I've never had a horse do that before."

Cool Conductor finished just as fast winning the local Million prep in his last race, and has done well in the three weeks since.

"I think he's as good, if not a notch better now," said trainer Ralph Nicks.

It has been two months since Good Reward won the Grade 1 Manhattan, but he also has thrived.

"He's a true mile and a quarter horse," said trainer Shug McGaughey. "We haven't missed a beat. It's just a matter if he's good enough."

Fourty Niners Son missed by a half-length to Sweet Return in the Eddie Read, and is getting better every race. And while Powerscourt is the best known of three Europeans, Alost was a closing fourth in the Manhattan, and Touch of Land has the look of a serious sleeper.

Bettors shunning heavily favored Kitten's Joy in the Million might dig deep to play the $1 NTRA Pick 4, which includes the Beverly D., the Sword Dancer, and the Amsterdam and has a $400,000 guarantee. The Beverly D. and the Million are part of a two-hour ABC telecast that airs at 3 p.m. Central. And while no pick three links Arlington's Grade 1's, each has a guaranteed trifecta pool; the Million's is $500,000, and the other two $250,000.

Rain is forecast here all the way through race day, though wet weather should be tapering off Saturday. Barring torrential downpours, the course should be in good shape, since the area has been drought-plagued since spring.

The field

Arlington Million
Purse: $1 million; 1 1/4 Miles, turf; Grade 1

1Kitten's JoyE. Prado6-5
2Touch of LandP. Valenzuela12-1
3Good RewardJ. Bailey10-1
4Fourty Niners SonC. Nakatani12-1
5WhillyF. Martinez15-1
6Better Talk NowJ. Velazquez6-1
7Sweet ReturnA. Solis5-1
8AlostF. Spanu50-1
9PowerscourtK. Fallon6-1
10Cool ConductorC. Velasquez10-1

* Blinkers on: Powerscourt
* All starters carry 126 pounds
* Track odds
* Television: Saturday, 4-6 p.m. Eastern; ABC