How to handicap Chicago’s richest horse race.
Early on a Saturday morning, hours before he’ll be fitted with a bridle and saddle, Rahystrada is pacing around his stall in a barn behind Arlington Park. The eight-year-old gelding sticks his head out of the Dutch door and chomps a mouthful of hay from a basket. Rahystrada was vanned up from Kentucky’s bluegrass country a few nights before, to run in the Arlington Handicap. If he finishes in the top three, he’ll qualify for his third Arlington Million.
“This is the best horse we’ve ever had,” said Byron Hughes II, whose father, Scooter Hughes, trains Rahystrada on a farm near Lexington. “He stays sound. He has no major problems. Last year he ran fifth in the Million, and the year before that, he was fourth.”
August 18 marks the 30th running of the Arlington Million. The race is significant in the history of American and international racing. When the Million premiered in 1981, it was the first seven-figure race, and the first to lure the best European turf horses to the U.S. Both innovations were copied a few years later by the Breeders’ Cup.
But a million bucks ain’t what it used to be. The Million is now only the 110th richest race in the world. It mainly draws Midwestern horses and second-tier Europeans, which means a hard knocker like Rahystrada might have a chance. In the Arlington Handicap (run annually in July), he rushes to lead. No one can catch him on the hard, brittle, brown grass.
“He loves it here!” exults Scooter, as he heads from the Winner’s Circle to the Horsemen’s Lounge for a celebratory Champagne toast. Does that mean Rahystrada will run in the Million?
“We’ll see how he comes out of this race,” Scooter says. “It’s a chance to run against some of the best from Europe. You always want to up your competition.”
(The Million winner also gets a ticket to the Breeders’ Cup.)
Handicapping the Million is a challenge for horseplayers, who have to compare foreign and domestic competitors. Most American gamblers rely on Beyer Speed Figures (a rating systems that enables handicappers to compare races run at different distances or over different surfaces), but those aren’t calculated for European horses. The Million is about class handicapping, says Alan Shuback, author of the book Global Racing. Shuback looks for horses who have won a Grade I race in the U.S., or a Group 2 race in England, Ireland or France.
Three of the last four Millions were won by horses from Europe, where almost all races are run on turf. European horses are bred to run long distances on grass, while American horses are bred to sprint on dirt. Rahystrada will be “competitive” in the Million, Shuback says, but “he’ll have to deal with horses from around the country and around the world. On Million Day, Arlington Park goes from being a regional track to being an international track.”
The most accomplished foreign contender is Famous Name, an English horse who finished second in the Tattersalls Gold Cup, a Group 1 race at Ireland’s Curragh Racecourse. The Tattersalls is just over a mile-and-a-quarter, the length of the Million.
Maybe he’s cocky after winning the Arlington Handicap, but Scooter doesn’t sound frightened of the upcoming British Invasion.
“This is not a good year in England,” he says. “It looks like they’re not going to have a strong contingent, but that doesn’t mean they can’t win.”
It might, however, mean that Rahystrada can.
The Arlington Million is August 18 at Arlington Park Racetrack, 2200 W Euclid Ave, Arlington Heights.