08/03/2009 12:00AM

Still looking like a million


When the Arlington Million was inaugurated in 1981, it created a big splash that created waves throughout the racing world. Not only was it America's first $1omillion Thoroughbred race, but it provided renewed support for high-quality international competition on American turf courses, a concept first set into motion in 1952, by John Shapiro's Washington D.C. International at Laurel Racecourse.

Just as Shapiro personally recruited top-quality foreign-based horses to run against our very best in his innovative D.C. International, so too did Richard Duchossois and his personal envoys persuade highly ranking Europeans to run in his rich turf race at Arlington.

Yet it was up to America's popular gelding John Henry to establish the Arlington Million as an instant American classic. John Henry not only won that inaugural Million in 1981, but he overcame a sharp British Invader, The Bart, with a desperate rally under legendary Hall of Famer Bill Shoemaker to score a thrilling nose victory that remains one of the very best in Arlington Million history.

John Henry would win another Million, remarkably as a 9-year-old in 1984, and through ensuing years, the race would be won by six other national turf champions, including Manila, Tight Spot, Estrapade, Perrault, Steinlen and Paradise Creek, some of whom also went on to win races worth $1 million to $3 million on the ultimate International stage - the Breeders' Cup - which was created in 1984.

In today's scheme of things, the million-dollar purse no longer is unique. In fact there are more than two dozen turf events throughout the world that offer purses of $2 million or more. This of course is a key reason why few international racing stars will be taking part in the race that changed the game's purse economics and has evolved into this country's principal midseason turf test for Breeders' Cup contenders.

Of equal import, the Million now is part Arlington's one-day International Festival of Racing, which includes two other Gradeo1 turf stakes - the $400,000 Secretariat for 3-year-olds and the $750,000 Beverly D. for fillies and mares.

For horseplayers this is a big plus, in that a pick three will be offered involving all three of these strong turf stakes, and if past experience is any guide, at least one of the three races will offer enormous value in the trifecta and superfecta.

The three Grade 1 turf stakes are in fact the highlight of the Arlington Park race meet and one of the most popular simulcast offerings of the summer. I have had an early peek at the horses likely to come in for these three turf races, and here are the key contenders before post positions were drawn.

In the Beverly D., at 1 3/16 miles on the turf, there are three possible European-based starters: Denomination, Alnadana, and Mad About You.

Denomination is a Group 3 winner this year. Alnadana, trained by Alain de Royer Dupre, won a Group 3 race in France in her most recent start and will be stretching out in distance after a series races at one mile and 1 1/16 miles. Mad About You, a Group 3 winner in Ireland this year, was a strong contender in a series of Group 1 races last year and is trained by the formidable Dermot Weld, an Irish-based trainer who consistently has shipped live contenders to Arlington and other American tracks to win rich Grade 1 races.

The top American-based contenders probably will be Black Mamba and Pure Clan.

Black Mamba, a Grade 1 stakes winner in 2008, more recently won the Grade 2 Beverly Hills at 1 1/4 miles on the Hollywood Park turf course, while Pure Clan won the Grade 3 Modestly stakes on this course at the 1 3/16-mile Beverly D. distance on July 11.

Having won much money wagering on Weld shippers to America through recent years, I do not see the percentage of abandoning that wagering approach for this event.

In the Secretariat, for 3-year-olds at 1 1/4 miles on the turf, contention runs deep and most are hard to separate. For instance, the top five finishers in the recently run American Derby - Reb, No Inflation, Oil Man, Proceed Bee, and 7-10 favorite Giant Oak - were involved in a roughly run race that might not have decided anything other than all five rate close together. Four of the five - No Inflation the exception - are expected to run in the Secretariat.

Moreover, the close finish in the American Derby has opened the door to a new face - perhaps the Christophe Clement-trained Laureate Conductor, winner of the Choice Stakes at Monmouth Julyo5, or Take the Points, a close third in the Virginia Derby.

While I slightly lean towards Reb, who won the American Derby with a furious late surge, Take the Points seemed improved in his latest and will deserve a long look on race day. There are no European invaders being entered.

In the Million, also at 1 1/4 miles on the turf, the only high-class European shipper in the prospective field is the Luca Cumani-trained Cima de Triomphe, who won the Group 1 Italian Derby in 2008 and the Group 3 Brigadier Gerard in England this year. While this 4-year-old colt might prove to be a serious upset threat, we just might see the eventual 2009 American turf champion be decided in this year's Million as the versatile 7-year-old Einstein meets the improving 4-yaer-old Gio Ponti.

While Einstein is remarkably consistent - a Grade 1 stakes horse who competes strongly on any racing surface in almost any situation - Gio Ponti, strictly a turf horse, already has run as fast as Einstein has ever run and he is only 4 years old with room to improve. My guess is that he will win this, the 27th running of a race that currently lacks resounding world wide impact, but still is one of the better turf races each year and completes one of the best days of turf racing on the American racing calendar.