Internationals hold strong hand in Arlington Million XXXV

The Pizza Man

By Kellie Reilly, courtesy Brisnet

Although Saturday’s 35th edition of the $1 million Arlington Million (G1) is the first North American “Win & You’re In” race for the 2017 Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), the automatic berth and associated perks may well go to an international shipper. And if the trophy stays home, Million XXXV will have helped to clarify a muddled American turf division.

Three veterans of the 2016 Million aim to improve upon their showing from last year – Kasaqui, who came up a neck shy of a 12-1 upset; Irish invader Deauville, an Aidan O’Brien trainee who missed narrowly in third; and the ever-popular Illinois-bred The Pizza Man, the 2015 Million winner who was a belatedly closing sixth in his bid to repeat.

Of that trio, Deauville has the most scope to move forward this time around, and accordingly rates as the 7-2 morning-line favorite. Last summer, the son of supersire Galileo was just a three-year-old competing against his elders. That formula hasn’t worked in the Million since Tolomeo dethroned John Henry in 1983.

Now as a more mature four-year-old, Deauville is meeting his Arlington rivals on a level playing field. Unlike the typical European, he has solid tactical speed. The re-addition of cheekpieces (sheepskin strips attached to the sides of the bridle), which he’s worn occasionally in the past, should ensure his focus. Deauville has continued his fine form in Europe this season, presaging a bold showing here with all-world rider Ryan Moore. After all, his biggest career victory came on these shores in the 2016 Belmont Derby Invitational (G1), so you could say the U.S. style of racing suits him to a tee.

But there’s another international who could give Deauville a real tussle – French-based Mekhtaal. By the all-time great Sea the Stars, he appeared to be a flash-in-the-pan by the end of 2016, but he’s reached a new peak this campaign for top trainer Jean-Claude Rouget. Just denied in course-record time in his Group 2 reappearance in April, Mekhtaal scored a breakthrough in the Prix d’Ispahan (G1) before a better-than-appears sixth to Highland Reel in the Prince of Wales’s (G1) at Royal Ascot. He was actually beaten by two reigning Breeders’ Cup winners that day. Aside from Turf champion Highland Reel, he wasn’t far behind Filly & Mare Turf (G1) winner Queen’s Trust (fourth).

Mekhtaal has drawn poorly in post 13, but we’ll count on the legendary Frankie Dettori – aboard him for the first time – to work out a decent trip. Best in a close stalking role, Mekhtaal is worth playing at his morning-line odds of 9-2, and more appealing if concerns about his post cause his price to drift. Interestingly, he’s the only Million runner not taking advantage of Lasix.

The international contingent would have been even stronger with Godolphin’s Scottish. Unfortunately, he was ruled out by an injury Thursday, and we won’t see him again until the 2018 Dubai Carnival at the earliest. Rounding out the Europeans, then, is 30-1 longshot Fanciful Angel. He’ll need some luck at this level, but trainer Marco Botti has a knack for doing well at Arlington’s International Festival of Racing.

Of the American hopefuls, Beach Patrol may be the one ready to jump up. Trained by the high-percentage Chad Brown, he earned his only stakes victory over this course and 1 1/4-mile distance in the Secretariat (G1) on 2016 Million Day. Beach Patrol has gone winless since the Secretariat, but he’s run consistently well in defeat. He’s had tough trips or other mitigating circumstances, and may have done better if the races had unfolded differently for him. So it could be decisive that Beach Patrol gets a rider switch to Joel Rosario, who has a 32 percent strike rate with Brown runners over the past 60 days as well as excelling in other important stats, making him a must-use in the Million wagering strategy at 5-1.

There’s precedent for Secretariat winners to annex the Million as older horses. Awad and Marlin turned the double in the 1990s, followed by Kicken Kris (albeit getting the 2004 Million trophy via disqualification).

The Pizza Man, on the other hand, has a tougher historical challenge – trying to join Hall of Famer John Henry as the only two-time Million winners. He’d also be the oldest Million winner since fellow eight-year-old The Tin Man in 2006, and almost as aged as John Henry, who was nine for his second Million in 1984.

Kasaqui’s third in the Arlington H. (G3) to Ghost Hunter and Oak Brook was a solid prep under top weight, and the 10-1 chance promises to outperform his odds again. Yet a minor award may be likelier for the consistent seven-year-old in a race that has arguably greater strength in depth than last year.

Divisidero would be a major win threat if he can duplicate his form from Churchill Downs, where he’s won the last two runnings of the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (G1) on Derby Day. The lingering question is that he hasn’t looked as potent a force away from the Twin Spires. He’s also yet to hit the board in three attempts at this distance, although all at Belmont, and his record is possibly more a function of locale. He’s certainly bred to go much farther than 1 1/4 miles.

Ascend, once better known as the workmate for Belmont (G1) runner-up Irish War Cry, burst onto the turf scene when springing a 27-1 upset of the Manhattan (G1) on Belmont Day. Capitalizing on a feathery 114-pound weight assignment, he received eight pounds from Beach Patrol (fourth) and 10 from Divisidero (sixth). Ascend must now must grapple with them at level weights here. His last-out fourth in the Bowling Green (G2) can be forgiven for reasons of pace dynamics, but the weight issue is less easily overlooked.

Oscar Nominated, a full brother to Secretariat morning-line favorite Oscar Performance, looks a notch below on form. But the Ramsey colorbearer reunites with jockey Florent Geroux, who seems to click with him. His stablemate from the Mike Maker barn, Enterprising, needs to recapture his sparkling form from Fair Grounds earlier this season to factor.
So on to the final verdict: My top four are Mekhtaal, Deauville, Beach Patrol, and Kasaqui.

To help find your Million horses, consult the free past performances, courtesy of Brisnet, and good luck!