Gio Ponti, the Champion Older Male and Champion Grass Male of 2009, tries to make history Saturday at Arlington Park near Chicago. Should Gio Ponti (photo right) win the grade 1 Arlington Million on turf, he would become the first horse to win the 1-1/4 race in consecutive years in the 27 previous runnings of the race.
Horse of the Year John Henry won the inaugural Arlington Million in 1981 with a historically thrilling nose victory over The Bart (photo left), and again in 1984. But John Henry missed the second running of the Arlington Million due to injury and was upset by European invader Tolomeo in 1983.
Powerscourt remains the only horse to cross the finish line first in consecutive years, but his 2005 victory came a year after being disqualified from first and placed fourth for interference in the stretch of the Arlington Million. Ironically, Powerscourt is not the only horse to be disqualified from the Arlington Million winner's circle after being the first to cross the wire. In fact, in happened in two consecutive runnings.
In 2003, Storming Home hit the wire in front, but without carrying jockey Gary Stevens. Just moments before the wire - looking as if he was a sure winner, Storming Home ducked sharply, unseating Stevens. Stevens suffered several injuries, including a collapsed lung, and second-place finisher Sulamani was given the victory.
The Arlington Million has a solid history through it’s 28 runnings (the race was not run in 1998 or ’99) with 19 Champions representing 23 year-end honors after racing in the Million. The most celebrated of those, of course, is John Henry who garnered two Horse of the Year honors, three Champion Grass Male and two Champion Older Horse Eclipse Awards at the end of the three years he competed in the Arlington Million. John Henry was also the Champion Grass Horse in 1980, the year before the first Arlington Million.
Hall of Fame trainers Charlie Whittingham and Ronald McAnally have won the Arlington Million three times and jockeys Laffit Pincay Jr., Gary Stevens, Cash Asmussen, Jerry Bailey and Jose Santos have each won two. Manila, Estrapade, Steinlein, Star of Cozzene and Golden Pheasant are among the thoroughbreds who have stood in the Arlington Park winner’s circle following the million.
Yet with all of that history, the Arlington Million has never produced a winner of the Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. 1) in the same year. Manila is the only horse to win both races having won the Breeders’ Cup Turf in 1986 before going to Chicago win the million the next year. Breeders’ Cup Turf winners Theartical (1987) and Northern Spur (’95) lost the Million in the same year as their Breeders' Cup victories; and English Channel won the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Turf after finishing 4th in the ’06 Arlington Million.
Last year Gio Ponti rattled off consecutive grade 1 victories on turf on his way to his championships. This year he is hoping to win his second consecutive major after winning the grade 1 Man o’ War Stakes at Belmont Park and begin a new streak. He has endured losses this year with a runner-up finish in the Manhattan (gr. 1) on Belmont Stakes day and fourth in the Dubai World Cup (gr. 1UAE) in March in Dubai.
This year Gio Ponti will be facing a field of nine others including European Invaders Summit Surge, Tazeez and Debussy. Although most of the competition figures to come from Just As Well and General Quarters from the domestics. Just As Well was second in the Arlington Million last year and more recently runner-up in the the local Arlington Handicap (gr. 3T) while General Quarters counts the Woodford Reserve (gr. 1T) at Churchill Downs among his recent wins.
At 7-5 in the morning line, Gio Ponti certainly looks like the most probable winner. But if history teaches us anything, normality is not to be counted on in the Arlington Million.