Five Questions to be Answered in the Arlington Million
By Joe Kristufek, courtesy America's Best Racing
Run at 1 ¼ miles on turf, the $1 million, Grade 1 Arlington Million at Arlington Park in Arlington Heights, Ill. is a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” race for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf.
A lucrative novelty when it was introduced as the first million-dollar horse race back in 1981, the Arlington Million has a storied history that includes victories by some of the top turf horses in the sport.
Top European trainer Aidan O’Brien, who saddles this year’s lukewarm 7-2 morning line favorite Deauville, has won two of the last 12 editions of the Arlington Million – Powerscourt in 2005 and Cape Blanco in 2011.
Bred in Illinois, The Pizza Man won the 2015 edition of the Arlington Million before finishing a close sixth last year.
Here are five questions that must be answered in the Million, which will be televised from 6:30-7:30 p.m. on NBCSN.
1. How good are the American turf horses?
A game winner of last year’s Grade 1 Secretariat Stakes for 3-year-olds at Arlington, the Chad Brown-trained Beach Patrol has yet to win from four starts this year, but he’s been knocking on the door against Grade 1 competition. In his most recent start, he was sent off as the 7-5 favorite in the Grade 1 United Nations Stakes at Monmouth Park, and despite being cooked in an inexplicably fast pace, he dug deep to finish third.
The winner of the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic Stakes on Kentucky Derby weekend in consecutive years at Churchill Downs, Divisidero has been somewhat of an enigma for trainer Buff Bradley. The millionaire has run some gigantic races, but he’s failed to light the toteboard from three tries at Saturday’s 1 ¼-mile turf distance.
Whispers that 2015 Arlington Million winner The Pizza Man had “lost a step” followed him into last year’s edition, but the now 8-year-old gelding ran better than expected. He finished sixth, but was only beaten by 1 ½ lengths, and he would return to capture the Grade 1 Northern Dancer Stakes at Woodbine in his very next start. His two local races this year have been less inspiring than last year’s preps and those whispers are louder.
Trainer Ignacio Correas, who will saddle one of the Beverly D. Stakes favorites in Dona Bruja, gives Argentinian import Kasaqui his second consecutive crack at the Million. A hard-charging second last year at odds of 12.20-1, finishing just in front of possible 2017 Million favorite Deauville, this gorgeous, gray 7-year-old failed to repeat in the Grade 3 Arlington Handicap five weeks ago, but one could argue he ran a winning race. He didn’t have the cleanest of trips and rallied for third.
Ascend scored a 27.50-1 shocker in his graded stakes debut in the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Manhattan Stakes at Belmont Park two starts back, but he came back down to earth in the Grade 2 Bowling Green Stakes at Saratoga just two weeks ago, finishing fourth as the 9-5 favorite.
Ghost Hunter and Oak Brook crossed the finish line in front of Kasaqui in the Arlington Handicap, but if either won the Million, it would be a shock.
Oscar Nominated is sneaky good. More on him later.
Enterprising has yet to test 1 ¼ miles and he appears slightly outclassed.
To call any of the American-based male turf horses a “star” would be a stretch.
For some perspective, Zhukova, a 5-year-old Irish-bred mare with only a pair of Group 3 wins on her résumé, crossed the pond for the Grade 1 Man o’ War Stakes at Belmont in May, and crushed her overmatched American foes by six lengths. A boggy course most likely worked in her favor, but seldom do horses win Grade 1 turf races by such a margin.
As it often does, the Million lured two of the better U.S. turf horses in training in Beach Patrol and Divisidero, and Kasaqui proved more than formidable in last year’s renewal.
2. What is Divisidero’s best game?
At distances from a mile to 1 1/8 miles, Divisidero has displayed a scintillating turn of foot. If his Million run mirrors his other 1 ¼-mile performances, cutting him back and pointing to the Breeders’ Cup Mile might be in the cards. A prep in the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile Stakes on Oct. 7 at Keeneland would set him up perfectly. I honestly think he has a chance to be one of the best turf milers in the world.
3. How strong is this year’s European contingent?
As a 3-year-old, Deauville puddle jumped to win the Grade 1 Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes in advance of a close-up, third-place finish against his elders in the Million. Forced to leave from the extreme outside post in the field of 11, he stalked the pace and led in the stretch, only to be outkicked late by race winner Mondialiste and runner-up Kasaqui. This year, he’s held his own with some of the top turf horses in Europe, finishing third to both Ribchester and Decorated Knight.
He may not have the credentials of Deauville, but one could argue Mekhtaal has just as much upside. He had a productive 3-year-old campaign, but has proven his true class this season. He defeated just four foes over 1 1/8 miles in garnering his first career Group 1 win two starts back, and returned to hold his own in the prestigious Group 1 Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot last out, finishing just a few lengths behind the likes of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf champ Highland Reel and top-rated turfer Ulysses.
As is the case most years in the Arlington Million, we’ll see how Europe’s B-team matches up with the best the U.S. has to offer on turf. If recent opponents Highland Reel, Ribchester, Decorated Knight or Ulysses were in the Million starting gate, they’d be the odds-on favorite to win it. Deauville and Mekhtaal have been competitive against those turf stars, and that form should translate quite well to the Million.
The Million lost a sneaky good contender when Scottish came up lame following a Thursday blow out.
Fanciful Angel looks like an afterthought.
4. Who is the best Arlington Million longshot?
He’s lost to most of the Americans in the field, but Oscar Nominated could turn the tables in the Million. He made a middle move into a fast pace in the United Nations, and that race should serve as a perfect tightner for this. He finished fifth to Beach Patrol in last year’s Secretariat, but one could argue that traffic trouble cost him the win. Florent Geroux has ridden this son of Kitten’s Joy on several occasions and he certainly knows his way around Arlington’s turf course. Well drawn on the inside with tactical speed, he might get an ideal trip, but he’ll need to avoid getting stuck behind a fading Oak Brook when the real running begins.
5. Who wins Arlington Million XXXV and why?
Great betting race.
Oak Brook has to “go” from the rail and Enterprising probably will show speed out of the gate. From an outside post, Beach Patrol should fall into a clear pressing or close-up stalking trip.
Oscar Nominated, Ghost Hunter, Deauville and have similar stalking styles, and after the long run into the first true turn, it will be interesting to see how they sort themselves out.
Divisidero, Kasaqui, The Pizza Man and the slow-starting Fanciful Angel will try to rally from farther back.
Mekhtaal is the pace wild card. He’s shown speed in the past, but was held toward the back of the pack in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes. He’s going to have to work some magic to win from the extreme outside post. That being said, if anyone’s capable of pulling a rabbit out of his hat, it’s world class rider Frankie Dettori. Mekhtaal has only had three races this year and has the look of a horse who’s ready to put it all together.
Joe’s Arlington Million picks: 1. Mekhtaal 2. Oscar Nominated 3. Deauville 4. Kasaqui