Photo: Brian Zipse
America’s first ever million dollar race was one that will forever be treasured in Chicago racing history. After months of building anticipation, the inaugural running of the Arlington Million was unveiled on a late summer afternoon of 1981. Much to the delight of everyone, Arlington Park had attracted the defending turf champion. In John Henry, you had something for everybody. He was a true rags to riches story.
John Henry was son of the modest sire Old Bob Bowers and the equally unheralded Once Double. Early on, John Henry was considered a foal with poor conformation and a bad attitude. Nobody expected much from him, and this was displayed loud and clear in his purchase price of $1,100. He was sold a few more times before he made it to the races at small tracks in the Bayou. With all due respect, not many champions start their career at Jefferson Downs and Evangeline Downs. Once it was noticed that he could run a bit, John Henry garnered more interest and was purchased by Sam Rubin, sight unseen.
Eventually, an affinity for the grass was discovered and the horse would go from claiming races to stakes races. In the Fall of 1979, Ron McAnally would take over training and the horse would soon become a champion. By the running of the first Arlington Million, John Henry was already an Eclipse Award winner and well on his way to Horse of the Year for 1981. American race fans identified with his ascent from meager beginnings to superstar. He was horse racing’s version of the American Dream. In the Million, he would face a soft Arlington turf and a strong field of 11 other turf specialists.
Among them was a little known Irish five-year-old named The Bart. The Bart had been competitive in turf stakes in California, but he did not have the resume of John Henry or many others in the field. Handicappers figured that the big horse’s main competition would come from local hero Rossi Gold, Eastern turf star Key to Content, or one of the French invaders Argument and Madame Gay. It was a great field, and it accomplished Arlington’s goal of an international field. Make no mistake though, John Henry was the star. He would be supported to the tune of 11-10 while The Bart was ignored at 40-1.
A crowd of more than 30,000 patrons filled the Suburban Chicago race place to the brim. NBC Sports was there to televise the race both to U.S. fans, as well an international viewing audience. Chicago was back on the racing map.
Key to Content took the early lead, while Eddie Delahoussaye had long shot The Bart following in perfect stalking position. John Henry was shuffled farther back than he usually occupied the first part of the race. Fractions were slow on the soft turf and the leading pair looked strong. John Henry made his way to a striking position on the turn, but it did not look good when The Bart spurted clear of Key to Content at the top of the lane. John Henry was resolute, but The Bart was still full of run. He was strong, but it became desperate as America’s champion was charging relentlessly on the outside.
The finish line was coming quickly as John Henry, ridden by legendary Willie Shoemaker, gained with every powerful stride. When they hit the wire it was too close to call. Arlington Park announcer Phil Georgeff did not know the outcome, no one did for sure. It was tight. The NBC announcers thought they knew, and were talking about The Bart as if he had won. A lengthy inspection of the photo ensued, and then the numbers were posted … 1, 4. John Henry had won. Fans went wild. John Henry had won, by a single hair protruding from his proud nose.
To the victor went all the spoils as the legend of John Henry grew. He would grace the American racing scene with his ability and determination for three more years, twice more visiting Arlington Park for the Million. But it was on August 30, 1981, when a gallant horse named The Bart gave him everything he wanted, and in so doing, brought out the true greatness of John Henry. To this day, Against All Odds overlooks the beautiful Arlington paddock. The bronze statue of John Henry and the Bart, battling to the wire together, remains the perfect tribute to one of racing’s greatest races.