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.
Start of a race in Arlington Park's first season, 1927 (Chicago Daily News)
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.
Joyce wanted international attention, and he got it. The final field of 14 horses included entries from England, Ireland and France. Interest in Europe was so great that NBC added special satellite TV coverage of the race. One writer said that the first Million would be “the race people may be telling their grandchildren about, fifty years from now.”
Program from the first Arlington Million (author's collection)
Million Day was a Sunday. The weather was pleasant, and 30,637 people came out to Arlington. As the horses readied for the 3:40 post, the favorite was 6-year-old gelding John Henry, with legendary jockey Bill Shoemaker up.
Racing fans call a thoroughbred race “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” The first Arlington Million took slightly longer than that, 2:07:06. Most of the excitement was provided by The Bart, a 40-1 shot who led much of the way. Charging furiously at the end, John Henry finally came through and won by a nose.
Watching the replay in the paddock, jockey Shoemaker could only shake his head and say, “That was even closer than the real thing!” He predicted the Arlington Million would have a splendid future because it had such an international flavor. And he added, “This might be the greatest race I was ever in.”
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.