The sporting world had never seen anything like it. The date was August 30, 1981, and Arlington Park was holding the first thoroughbred horse race with a million-dollar purse. The race was called – what else? – the Arlington Million.
The idea originated with Joe Joyce, who’d headed the track since 1976. The inaugural Million was scheduled over a distance of one-and-one-quarter miles, and was open to three-year-olds and up. The winner was to receive 60 percent of that $1 million purse – nearly double the prize of the Kentucky Derby.
Dave Condon of the Tribune had his own take on the Million. Illinois didn’t have (legal) off-track betting in 1981, so Condon decided to place a wager on the race with a London gambling house. In 1981 there wasn’t any internet, either. That meant he had to make a long-distance phone call at 3 a.m. Chicago-time.
The phone call itself involved various adventures. Finally, Condon got through to London – and was told that American Express wouldn’t allow him to charge a wager on his credit card.
Today the Arlington Million is a major event on the racing calendar. At the track itself, a sculpture titled “Against All Odds” commemorates the 1981 battle between John Henry and The Bart.