Missing The Million

August, 10, 2011
SARATOGA SPRINGS -- I'd crane my neck to catch a glimpse of Arlington Park, spaceship hulk of a grandstand looming just off Route 53, as a kid growing up in Chicago's Northwest Suburbs. We never went to Arlington, just passed it en route to one destination or the other. You couldn't see the actual racetrack from the road, but if you were lucky and it was early in the morning, horses could be spotted circling the old training track down by the barns. I used to beg my dad to slow down, used to hate the 50-miles-per-hour flow of traffic that swept us along much too fast.

When I got my driver's license, one of my first ventures was to the track. I didn't have a job covering races, didn't go out with an agenda or a list of potential interviewees. I sat on the apron in the mornings, just took it all in; the jingle of bits, the cadence of hoofbeats, the movement, the fine, sometimes nearly imperceptible communications between horse and rider. I didn't talk to anyone, but sometimes I'd take a notepad and write down things I noticed -- the way a good worker seems to skim the surface of the oval, the way a trainer's eyes track his charges down the course.

I'll always consider Arlington part of my formative years, but as fond as I am of the Midwest oval, I've never attended its' signature race. Arlington Million Day finds me mid-season at Saratoga, caught up in the day-to-day coverage of a meeting in a town that has been part of my life for the past six years. It's probably a good thing. I enjoy racing at Arlington before the Saratoga season gets underway, catch a race or two at the end of the meeting if I'm back in Chicagoland again, and for me, the laid-back, easygoing stroll from paddock to press box, from press box to winner's circle, is part of the charm.

But the Million is like Arlington's Kentucky Derby, the one day Illinois racing comes alive. So while I'm covering our own turf event in the Sword Dancer Invitational here, I'll keep an eye on the runners at home -- and so will the rest of the nation.

Here's a rundown of the action that will take place this Saturday. For more information, you can visit the race's official site.

$1 million, Grade 1 Arlington Million

European invaders take their shot at the 1 ¼-mile Million over the Arlington lawn each year, and this season is no exception with 4-year-old Irish Derby and Irish Champion Stakes winner Cape Blanco leading the charge. Heading the American defense is 2009 Arlington Million winner Gio Ponti, who at six could become the second horse -- joining the legendary John Henry -- to win the Chicago racing circuit's signature event twice. Trained by Christophe Clement, Gio Ponti ran second in the Million last year to 11-1 shot Debussy.

Cape Blanco, who is scheduled to arrive at Arlington on Wednesday, has already made one Atlantic crossing this year to defeat Gio Ponti by 2 1/4-lengths in the Grade 1 Man o'War Stakes at Belmont Park on July 9. This distinction gives the Aidan O'Brien trainee the slight 9-5 edge with jockey Jamie Spencer on the morning line, while Gio Ponti has been named the 2-1 second choice under Ramon Dominguez.

Mission Approved, who defeated Gio Ponti in the Grade 1 Manhattan Handicap at Belmont on June 11, last year's Secretariat Stakes runner-up Wigmore Hall (more recently third in the Grade 1 Dubai Duty Free on March 26), and local favorite Rahystrada (winner of the 2010 Grade 3 Arlington Handicap and fourth in last summer's Arlington Million) are also in line for a Million bid.

Zack Hall, fourth at last asking in France's Group 1 Grand Prix de St. Cloud on June 26, will make his first start outside his native land in the Million. Tajaaweed, winner of the July 9 Arlington Handicap and sixth in the Million last year, makes a return. Dean's Kitten, Proceed Bee, and General Perfect complete the field, with the latter attracting the services of two-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey Garrett Gomez, who was Arlington's leading rider in 1997.

$750,000, Grade 1 Beverly D. Stakes

Martin Schwartz's Stacelita, making her second start in America, is the 3-1 morning-line favorite in the filly and mare 1 3/16-mile turf event, which provides the winner an automatic starting position in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf as part of the "Win and You're In" Breeders' Cup Challenge Series.

Stacelita, a 5-year-old French-bred mare, was imported to America in late June and ran a close third in the Grade 1 United Nations Stakes at Monmouth Park. Ramon Dominguez will ride in her third start off a six-month layup which was preceded by a 2010 campaign that included two wins and two placings from six starts. She has not won since taking the Group 1 Jean Romanet last August at Deauville, and will attempt to become the third Martin Schwartz-owned entrant to win the Beverly D. following Angara in 2005 and Gorella in 2006.

South African sensation River Jetez is the 4-1 second choice on the morning line, making her first start in North America for trainer Mike de Kock. She seeks her first win since taking the Group 2 Balanchine Stakes at Meydan in February, and was fifth last time out in Newmarket's Group 1 Falmouth Stakes. Cheetah, who earned her first stakes win in America with a rail-skimming explosion in Delaware Park's Grade 3 Robert G. Dick Memorial in early July, looks to give trainer Christophe Clement his fourth score in the Beverly D. -- he won it with England's Legend in 2001, Royal Highness in 2007 and Mauralakana in 2008. Fantasia, 2010 Beverly D. winner Éclair De Lune, Never Retreat, Pachattack, Dubawi Heights, Check The Label, Upperline, and Romin Robin complete the field.

$400,000 Secretariat Stakes

European-based sophomore star Treasure Beach is listed as the 2-1 morning-line favorite for the 1 ¼-mile turf test for 3-year-olds, while Arlington Classic and American Derby hero Willcox Inn has been installed at 9-2 in his bid to sweep Arlington's Mid-America Triple.

The Secretariat is the third leg of the Triple which began with the $100,000 Arlington Classic on May 28 and continued with the Grade 2, $200,000 American Derby on July 9. It is the perfect target for the English-bred son of Galileo, who stamped himself as a force to be reckoned with when capturing the Group 1 Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby at The Curragh on June 26, but he may prove vulnerable as his last trip to the post on July 14 resulted in a fourth-place finish in the Group 1 Juddmonte Grand Prix de Paris at Longchamp.

The locally-based Willcox Inn seeks to become the fourth horse to sweep the Mid-America Triple and the first since Honor Glide in 1997. The Mike Stidham trainee has shown flexibility by winning over yielding turf in the Arlington Classic and over firm ground in the American Derby. Robby Albarado, who has been aboard for each of Willcox Inn's previous Arlington scores, gets the return call.

The second-, third-, fourth-, and seventh-place finishers of the Grade 2 Virginia Derby all passed the entry box for the Secretariat as well. Banned, the 3-1 second choice, finished second, just a neck behind Air Support in their meeting over the Colonial Downs turf course last month. Prior to that, the Tom Proctor trainee won back-to-back races over the Churchill Downs lawn -- the Grade 2 American Turf in May and the Grade 3 Jefferson Cup the following month.

There is one other European is in the Secretariat field, Ziyarid, owned by His Highness the Aga Khan's Studs. The son of Desert Style has won his last three starts overseas including the Group 3 Prix Daphnis at Longchamp last out on July 2. Suntracer and Derby Kitten, both sons of 2004 Secretariat Stakes winner Kitten's Joy, Casino Host, Crimson China, L'Aiglon, and Newsdad complete the field.



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