Through most of last week at Arlington Park in Chicago's outer suburbs, it appeared that the recipe for an Instant Classic went like this: take $1 million, 14 assorted thoroughbreds accustomed to running on grass and add water. So copiously did the last ingredient fall from the sky, at one point it seemed that trench warfare, not horse racing, would be the most suitable activity on Sunday, Arlington Million Day. And on the road to Arlington, indeed, the equine casualty list had overtones of World War I as, one by one, the star-quality grass horses from Europe and the U.S. that had been scheduled to appear were reported missing and hastily drafted recruits were flung in to plug the front line.
Which, cynics might say, is what you get when you try to buy your way to glory, as Joseph F. Joyce Jr. did last year when he announced that Arlington Park would host the richest thoroughbred horse race in history. Joyce, president of the track, was, in effect, speaking for the parent Madison Square Garden Corporation and its financial muscle—he is also a senior vice-president there—when he declared $1 million at stake, with $600,000 going to the winner. The finest thoroughbreds in the world would be winnowed out, so that the final 14 runners would represent the best everywhere.
An idea whose time has come, thundered the publicists. Horse racing is a sport with a global following, and up there in the sky, all those satellites were a-twinkling, waiting to flash the international Arlington Million, not just to the U.S. and Europe, but to Hong Kong and Australia. It would be the ultimate race.
It was a fine idea on paper, but in a corner, that curmudgeonly old figure, Boring Old Reality, muttered that few of the best American horses liked to run on grass, and that money alone was unlikely to deflect the finest European thoroughbreds from the Arc de Triomphe to be held in Paris only five weeks after the Million. And isn't there a race called the Washington, D.C. International, based on a similar global concept, that has been running since 1952 but has never set the racing world ablaze?
In the run-up to the Million it looked increasingly as if the old grouch was going to be proved right. Temperence Hill, who had robbed Spectacular Bid of the Triple Crown by winning the Belmont in 1980, ran in New York two weeks ago in a minor grass race, to check out what the stuff was like—and came in next to last. Scratch Temperence Hill. Then Bold Tropic and Caterman, both running in California but representing, respectively, South Africa and New Zealand, injured themselves. Scratch them.
The next to drop out was the top English entry, To-Agori-Mou, whose trainer announced that his horse was really a miler and that Arlington's mile and a quarter didn't suit him. Then Premio Nobel, a Chilean horse, developed a fever, In Fijar, from France, started to cough, and Sea Chimes, from England, kicked a hole in his stall and injured a leg.
All of which led to alarums and excursions, as well as a trauma-induced transatlantic call to Sean Shelley, who works for Peden's International Transport, a kind of travel agency for horses. It was 8:30 p.m. in London, Friday, Aug. 21, barely eight days before the race, when Sean was told to immediately make arrangements to get a Saudi-owned, English-trained horse, Bel Bolide, aboard the London- Chicago flight on Tuesday.
"I knew I had large problems," said Shelley, with admirable restraint. To begin with, he had to obtain U.S. visas for the grooms and blood tests for the horse. He solved the first problem by persuading his girl friend to stand in the long visa line outside the U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square. Meantime, Shelley arranged the other paper work and the blood tests. On Tuesday, Bel Bolide made his flight.
But Shelley's troubles were far from over, as he discovered when he arrived at Arlington at 5 a.m. on Wednesday. Now, Shelley learned, he was required to arrange Illinois licenses for nine grooms, assorted jockeys, owners and trainers—a total of 35. (Two other English-trained horses, Madam Gay and Fingal's Cave, as well as a couple of 2-year-olds were shipped out on the same flight.)
There was no quick end to his problems, either. He was out at Chicago's O'Hare airport early last Sunday morning to meet Lester Piggott, who was flying in just hours before the race to ride Madam Gay. Piggott, who enjoys the same kind of seniority and prestige in English racing that Bill Shoemaker does in the U.S., had to be photographed and then interviewed by the Illinois stewards before he could be declared persona grata. "I hope they streamline the paper work in future," said Shelley with feeling.