MIAMI, Aug. 12, 2014--A million dollars doesnâ€™t buy what it used to in racing (or anywhere else). When the Arlington Million was introduced in 1981 the purse was the story. The first seven-figure pot in American racing made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. (The Breedersâ€™ Cup wouldnâ€™t come along until three years later.)
The magic word â€śMillionâ€ť led NBC to sign on for live coverage and promote the event heavily. This was a big deal in pre-cable days because once the Triple Crown was over TV didnâ€™t have much interest in horse racing.
These days, million dollar purses are not quite commonplace (although if Martin Panza continues on his current pace at NYRA, they will be) but there are enough of them that they are not even much of a drawing card, per se, anymore.
If there was any doubt of this, the pre-entries for Saturdayâ€™s renewal of the Million dispelled them. Only seven horses signed on, four from the U.S. and three Euros. Thankfully for the event, one of the Euros is Breedersâ€™ Cup Turf winner Magician.
In spite of $15,000 in fees to enter, there is no guarantee or even probability that all seven will start. Hardest Core was also pre-entered in the supporting American St. Leger and could skip both for the Sword Dancer at Saratoga on Sunday.
Six starters would be the fewest in the history of the Million. Arlington shares some of the blame. The eye-catching purse 33 years ago hasnâ€™t been increased since.
The Million-Sword Dancer conflict underlines another problem plaguing racing. In spite of a shortage of horses and an even bigger shortage of top class horses, there is no inter-track cooperation of any kind in scheduling stakes. Monmouthâ€™s centerpiece race, the Haskell, and Saratogaâ€™s Jim Dandy have been running on back-to-back days for years.
Given Saratogaâ€™s compact season, in the heart of the prime summer dates at most tracks, itâ€™s impossible to avoid some conflicts. But races of the magnitude of the Haskell and Jim Dandy, the Arlington Million and Sword Dancer should have separation beyond 24 hours. This could be beneficial to horses, who might be â€śone work awayâ€ť or need extra time from their last race or in advance of their next goal.
NYRA knew when the Million would be scheduled, yet it penciled in the Grade 1 $500,000 Sword Dancer for the same pool of horses the very next day. It will be the first important stakes of the meeting for older males on the turf so there is no reason it couldnâ€™t have been run a couple of weeks earlier. Likewise, it wouldnâ€™t kill Monmouth to run the Haskell in mid-July.
Itâ€™s not being overly alarmist to speculate we might be seeing the final days of the Million. Remember tight-fisted Churchill Downs owns Arlington. The Million might be staying alive solely on the strength of personality of 92-year-old Richard Duchossois, who rebuilt Arlingon into a palace and remains an influential stockholder in Churchill Downs Inc.
Even with Duchossois, who wonâ€™t be around forever, as its champion, a less than stellar field for the Million might be all the excuse CDI needs to pull the plug on what once was the most publicized race of the year outside the Triple Crown.
A new track for Breedersâ€™ Cup
Horsemen and the Breedersâ€™ Cup have to be breathing easy that it is still two years before Del Mar will be hosting the championship races. The newly installed turf course, expanded solely to satisfy BC requirements that it handle 14-horse fields, has been a nightmare this summer.
Four horses broke down and had to be euthanized in the first nine days of the season, which began July 17. As a result, races were taken off the grass course on Sunday, July 27, to allow an extra day to deal with the problem before racing resumed on Wednesday. The day after turf racing returned, July 31, another horse broke down. Turf racing was suspended until Aug. 9.
Five races were conducted on the grass course without incident this past weekend. But you have to think one more fatal breakdown and Del Mar might have to bag turf racing for the season.
Even if it doesnâ€™t come to that, turf racing is being substantially reduced for the balance of the meeting. There will be no turf sprints, nor claiming races. Grass races will be curtailed by about one-third, according to officials.
With Los Alamitos, which has no turf course, in line to follow Del Mar before Santa Anita reopens on Sept. 26, scores of turf specialists will be confined to their stalls for almost two months. So expect as heavy an agenda of turf racing as the Great Race Place course can handle this fall. But with the Breedersâ€™ Cup five weeks into the season, Santa Anita has to balance the needs of horsemen with grass horses against having the course in the best shape possible for the championship events.
Meanwhile, Santa Anita and the Breedersâ€™ Cup might be playing with fire on the main track. The old track was ripped up after the marathon winter-spring meet ended. It has been replaced with a new kind of dirt, El Segundo sand, which is said to resemble that used years ago at Santa Anita and Hollywood.
The new surface is expected to be ready for workouts in early September but it wonâ€™t be seriously tested until racing resumes. Track officials are confident there wonâ€™t be any issues but you never know with a new surface. Del Mar didnâ€™t expect the problems it has encountered on its new turf course.
You have to wonder if the Breedersâ€™ Cup would have been awarded to Santa Anita for the third straight year if BC officials knew their races would be contested on a track barely more than a month old.