08/15/2001 11:00PM

Twenty years, a million memories

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - . . . and still sensational.

No race has ever had a more electrifying inaugural than the Arlington Million, on the murky August afternoon in 1981 when John Henry thundered his way into the hearts of racing fans around the world. An established star with important credits, he was supposed to run well and was part of a heavily favored entry facing 10 opponents in a strong international field assembled for the first million-dollar race.

Overnight rains turned the course into a bog, and John Henry didn't care for it at all. To The Bart, an Irish import, it was a downhill run, and at 40-1 he joyfully stalked the pace until he took command in the upper stretch.

Far back early, John Henry looked hopelessly beaten but mounted a little rally and passed tiring horses.

As The Bart stormed to the lead, the victory was assuredly his. John Henry, perhaps six lengths back, couldn't possibly do it, and yet at the wire, after seemingly hurling himself through the air for the final yards, it could have been a dead heat. The television caller gave it to The Bart. The judges and stewards called John Henry's name and the racing world, looking on intently, exploded in exultation.

Twenty years later, it is obvious that The Million was touched from the outset by some magic that ensures renewals with an exciting twist. Those hardy witnesses to the 1985 running will surely never forget the day they watched one of America's top sports events from tents, pitched on the site of the great stands that burned to the ground weeks earlier. Nor will they forget the reaction of England's Lord Derby, almost overcome by emotion after the front-running victory of his 14-1 Teleprompter was greeted on his return by a standing ovation.

There have been many other Millions to Remember, and there are indications we may have another on Saturday.

Bienamado is the clear-cut favorite and a talented and versatile horse, judging by his last two victories, both in Grade 1 stakes, one 1 3/4 miles and the other at 1 1/4 miles.

It takes a lot of horse to put such successes back to back, but our interest is piqued by two others from a competitive field. One is White Heart, who beat the highly regarded King Cugat this Spring in the Woodford Reserve at Churchill Downs, an outstanding performance. He hadn't raced in seven months, which tells you something about his quality and the skills of trainer Neil Drysdale.

The other Millionaire is Germany's Silvano, who won the Singapore Cup last Spring and the subsequent Queen Elizabeth Cup in Hong Kong. It is apparent that he travels exceedingly well and measures up by international standards.

He has had a freshening after his last start, is said to have trained well, and is in respected hands.

One of the many high points of Million Day is the outstanding program, including those top-drawer features, the $700,000 Beverly D. for fillies and mares and the $400,000 Secretariat for 3-year-olds, both on the turf.

Astra is the favorite for the Beverly D and comes off consecutive victories at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park Her record of 8 wins from 10 starts speaks for itself, but another in the field also has appeal. She is England's Legend,who ran a big race at Belmont Park last month to win the New York Handicap and appears to be improving.

The Secretariat appears very competitive but the well-regarded Sharp Performance and Mizzen Mast look to be on solid ground. The improving Sharp Performance was as good as his name in Belmont Park's Lexington Stakes last month, while Mizzen Mast gave a very fine account,according to observers, in the Group 1 Grand Prix de Paris., a coveted credential.

This looks like a day of racing worth the anticipation.