08/19/2010 4:11PM

No greener grass than the Million's

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Twenty-nine years ago, as John Henry stood on a pallet at Los Angeles International Airport shooting disgusted glances at the younger Super Moment, his agitated traveling mate, the Arlington Million was nothing more than an idea wrapped in a public relations campaign and garnished by cash. A few days later, John Henry put the race on the map, and the race took it from there.

Pick your favorite. There is no shortage of grand memories, including a heartbreat second (1983) and another score (1984) for John Henry. Give Fernando Toro full credit for Estrapade’s slippery run along the backstretch rail in 1986 that put her in position to beat the boys. Laffit Pincay was in the thick of the 1991 thriller with victorious Tight Spot, who finished just two necks and a head in front of fourth-place Chenin Blanc.

Masterful grass horses like Manila, Perrault, Golden Pheasant, Paradise Creek, Marlin, and The Tin Man have taken home the prize, as well as invaders like Dear Doctor, Silvano, and Teleprompter. And for those who like their drama with an edge, Storming Home was best in 2003, until he bolted just before the line and threw Gary Stevens in harm’s way, while Jamie Spencer wished with all his might for a do-over after erratic Powerscourt was taken down in 2004. The following year, Powerscourt returned to win outright, this time under Kieren Fallon.

Saturday’s 28th running of the Million -- a nickname that stuck in spite of subsequent races offering similar sums – will assemble a cast of characters befitting its history. There will never be another grass horse like John Henry, so forget about that, but any race with Gio Ponti is reason to take note, and the supporting cast is as good as can be expected in a division spread thin by rival offerings.

Just last weekend, the 12-furlong Sword Dancer Stakes was run at Saratoga, and next Friday at the same track there is the ning-furlong Bernard Baruch. The Del Mar Handicap, at 11 furlongs, comes just eight days after the Million, while the Sky Classic, offering 250,000 rock-solid Canadian dollars, will be run at 10 furlongs at Woodbine on the day after the Million. Take that, Chicago.

Even the overseas schedule affects potential Million runners, although the operators of the Arlington race never counted on cutting into Europe’s summer schedule for the cream of the older crop. The best of those were on display last Tuesday at York, when Rip Van Winkle edged Twice Over in the Juddmonte International, also at 10 furlongs.

Both of those colts were beaten last fall by Gio Ponti in the male division of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, run at 10 furlongs over the synthetic course at Santa Anita Park (Zenyatta, as it turned out, was in a race of her own). It can be argued that Gio Ponti’s best lick is, in fact, a mile and a quarter, given the added evidence of his brave finish to be beaten barely a length in a paceless Dubai World Cup, not to mention his victory in the 2009 running of the Million.

None of this, however, is stopping Jonathan Sheppard from trying Gio Ponti again with Just as Well, who finished second to Gio Ponti last year in what was likely the best race of his life.

“It probably was,” Sheppard said Thursday morning, from Presque Isle Downs, where he was preparing to load Just as Well on the van for the nine-hour drive to Chicago. “He just let Gio Ponti get away from him that day and was coming on.

“His last race there in the Arlington Handicap was very good,” Sheppard went on, referring to Just as Well’s second last month in the local Million prep. “He was four lengths back at the eighth pole and in front and drawing out two jumps past the wire. I know we’re up against Gio Ponti again, but he’s doing very well, so we’ll give him a try.”

As both owner and trainer of Just as Well, Sheppard is fully vested when it comes to the 7-year-old son of A.P. Indy. Breeder George Strawbridge gave his longtime friend Sheppard the colt outright four years ago when it was painfully apparent he might not stand training. After more than a year turned out on Sheppard’s farm, Just as Well returned to the track and decided to become a racehorse. He has now earned more than $800,000, even though it has been eight starts and more than a year since Just as Well won a race outright. He was not embarrassed when he ran seventh of 18 in the 2009 Japan Cup, when he finished five lengths behind the grand mare Vodka, and in addition to the Arlington, he came close in the Dixie this spring.

Just as Well’s bankroll could have been larger, and still could be, depending on the appeal of the recent decision by the Ontario Racing Commission taking the 2009 Northern Dancer Stakes away from Sheppard and Just as Well. They were elevated to the win upon the interference disqualification of Marsh Side for interference, but then Marsh Side’s people got the stewards’ call reversed. The difference in purse money between first and second in that Grade 1 Canadian event is still being held in an escrow account.

“It’s worth the trouble, absolutely, and not just because of the purse,” Sheppard said. “You would think, with his pedigree, Just as Well could have a career as a stallion. A Grade 1 win on his record would serve him well.”

Good point. Having such a sweet berry dangled and then snatched away behind closed doors is hard to take. Sheppard would prefer such matters to be settled out there on the track. Marsh Side finished fourth in that recent Arlington Handicap, and he has been entered in both the Million and the Sky Classic, with track condition determining where he may run.

So, while the wheels of justice north of the border slowly turn, Just as Well could solve any lingering questions about his status as a turf horse of the first rank by handling both Gio Ponti and, if he shows, Marsh Side on Saturday in the Million.