Seven best Arlington Million winners

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

August 4th, 2022

Arlington’s iconic turf race has been transferred to Churchill Downs in 2022. In anticipation of the Aug. 13 renewal, here’s my idea of the seven best Arlington Million heroes. 

John Henry (1981, 1984)

The Hall of Fame gelding did more than just put the Million on the map with his presence in the 1981 inaugural – he made it an instant classic. Apparently beaten when toiling on a soft turf course, John Henry summoned his famed determination and got up by a nose over The Bart in a thriller. The epic finish was immortalized in a bronze statue at Arlington.

Just edged by Tolomeo here in 1983, John Henry regained his Million crown in 1984 by beating champion Royal Heroine, star of the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) later that year, and 1982 Kentucky Derby (G1) scorer Gato Del Sol. Beloved for his rags-to-riches story as well as his cantankerous character, John Henry remains the only two-time winner of the Million.

Manila (1987)

Manila’s Million victory leaves a pang of what might have been, since he sustained a career-ending injury soon after. Yet the brilliant colt had already done enough to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Moreover, the late Joe Hirsch, the “dean of American turf writers,” hailed Manila as the best U.S. turf horse he’d ever seen, alongside 1950s Hall of Famer Round Table.

Manila at one point brandished a nine-race winning streak, including the 1986 Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) over champions Theatrical, Estrapade, and European legend Dancing Brave. He handily defeated Theatrical in their rematch the following summer at Arlington as well.

Paradise Creek (1994)

Paradise Creek scored gaudier victories during his outstanding championship campaign than the 1994 Million. But as often happens in racing, the margin doesn’t tell the whole story. Paradise Creek did well to run down Fanmore, who nearly stole it on the front end.

Powerscourt (2005)

To me, Powerscourt will always be the moral winner of two Millions. As a matter of official record, however, the Irish shipper was disqualified from a clear-cut win for alleged interference in 2004.  

Powerscourt made no mistake in his return visit to Arlington in 2005, slamming champion Kitten’s Joy by three lengths with a “revengeful run,” as track announcer John Dooley aptly summarized it. While not one of Aidan O’Brien’s all-time greats, Powerscourt was a classy European operator who was unlucky not to have a better American resume.

Gio Ponti (2009)

Three-time Eclipse Award champion Gio Ponti stumbled at the start of the 2009 Million, but a slingshot move on the turn propelled him into the winner’s circle. A fixture in Chicago for three straight summers, he suffered a brutal beat here in 2010, and endured traffic trouble when runner-up again in 2011.

Gio Ponti’s merit is further revealed by his runner-up efforts in the Breeders’ Cup. Hall of Famer Zenyatta denied him in the 2009 Classic (G1), and all-time great Goldikova foiled him in the 2010 Mile. But for those legendary ladies, Gio Ponti would have turned an unprecedented Mile/Classic double.

Cape Blanco (2011)

Ireland’s champion three-year-old of 2010, Cape Blanco seized the American turf crown in 2011. The O’Brien invader dethroned Gio Ponti in the Man o’ War S. (G1) and again defeated him in the Million. Cape Blanco showed that his heart was as formidable as his talent when slogging to victory in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (G1), despite injuring his knee in the process. The transatlantic champion was promptly retired.

Bricks and Mortar (2019)

Bricks and Mortar recovered from nearly career-ending injury to compile a perfect Horse of the Year campaign in 2019. Twice he mastered O’Brien’s globetrotting mare Magic Wand, in the Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1) and in the Million. The Chad Brown trainee sealed his career, and completed a unique sweep of prizes, in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

Honorable mention: Sulamani

Strictly as a matter of career accomplishments, Sulamani would deserve inclusion on this list, as a French classic winner who scored Grade/Group 1s in five countries, on three continents. But the Godolphin globetrotter was awarded his 2003 Million victory via disqualification. The first-past-the-post, Storming Home, was clearly on top when veering out approaching the wire. Although the stewards made the right call to demote Storming Home for cutting across a few rivals, world-class Sulamani backed into this win.