08/11/2005 12:00AM

International gathering a long time in making

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - International competition in Thoroughbred racing is pretty much taken for granted these days. The Japan Cup, the Breeders' Cup, the Dubai World Cup, and another handful of major events have all become regular melting pots for horses from around the globe.

But it wasn't always this way. In fact, until the Arlington Million moved from drawing board toward reality 25 years ago, the scope of international competition was limited to an invitational race that since has become defunct: the Washington D.C. International at Laurel Park.

"The impact of the Arlington Million on international racing cannot possibly be overestimated," said Nick Clarke, the retired executive director of the International Racing Bureau who has attended every Million since the 1981 inaugural was run as the world's first million-dollar race. "It was the grenade in the pool."

The Million can trace its roots all the way back to 1972, according to Arlington's senior vice president, Bill Thayer Jr., who has lasted through several Arlington regimes in his 40-year tenure. Thayer, who still has copious notes he made from meetings and other business involving the Million, said a man named Earl Webster, who was working as a charter-flight booking agent at the time, first mentioned the idea.

"But we didn't have that kind of money, so the idea just kind of laid there for years," recalled Thayer.

Clarke said Robert Sangster, the late British football-pools baron, also was trying to hatch a similar idea for a major international race during the same time frame but also was unable to put anything together.

Ultimately, the concept finally started coming together for Arlington in early 1980 when Thayer, along with Arlington officials Joe Joyce and Sheldon Robbins, took the idea directly to New York to their boss, the late Sonny Werblin of Gulf + Western, the conglomerate that owned Arlington at the time.

"Sonny was a real showman, and he loved the idea but said, 'You guys have got to come up with the money,' " said Thayer. "It was a very long process, but in the end we were able to scrape it together."

In the meantime, the Arlington brass was enlisting the assistance of Clarke and John Hughes, who would prove highly instrumental in convincing European horsemen to ship overseas to Chicago, adding the crucial international element.

"Those were very pivotal meetings," said Clarke. "You have to remember that at that stage, there was no Breeders' Cup, no Japan Cup, nothing to make people think they could venture outside their own spheres of influence. The International was a nice race, but because it was by invitation only, there was a prevailing feeling that the world could do better by having more legitimate competition open to anyone who wanted to subscribe."

In early 1981, all the pieces of the puzzle finally had been put into place, and a formal announcement was made in downtown Chicago. On Aug. 30, 1981, the Million gained instant fame and credibility when John Henry ran down The Bart in a spectacular finish.

"Twenty-five years ago, Arlington was in uncharted territory, but now you can look back in wonderment and see what they started," said Clarke. "It's a heritage they can be immensely proud of."