Quality Sells - by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the August 25, 2012 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell - @BH_EMitchell on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell Arlington Park more than exceeded its expectations to restore the international flavor of its Aug. 18 International Festival.

Despite the good reputation of Arlington’s turf course and the added attraction of “Win and You’re In” status for the $1 million Arlington Million and the Beverly D. Stakes (both grade IT) for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, the Chicago-area racetrack had seen international interest on its marquee day flag a bit. Last year, only two horses who had made their previous starts overseas had been entered in the Million (we’re not including winner Cape Blanco because he came into the race off a victory in the Man o’ War Stakes, gr. IT, at Belmont Park).

European enthusiasm, however, was significantly higher for 2012. Entered in this year’s premier trio of grade Is—the Million, the Beverly D., and the Secretariat Stakes—were 10 horses who had previously started overseas. That is twice the number of starters entered in 2011 and the highest number collectively since at least 2004.

The solution, it appears, was for the track’s management to get on a plane and reestablish some connections.

Arlington Park general manager Tony Petrillo said it had been about five years since anyone from the track had visited training yards in Great Britain. Petrillo and others left on Father’s Day and spent a week visiting prominent trainers and promoting the value of the International Festival stakes program, which included a new marathon with a name that should have rung familiar—the (American) St. Leger Stakes. Petrillo said the St. Leger name, which is the third race in the English Triple Crown, has only been lent to stakes races in six other countries. The American St. Leger was run at 111⁄16 miles, just a bit shorter than the English classic that is run at just over 13⁄4 miles. An additional four horses from England, France, and Italy shipped to Arlington to take a run at the new St. Leger.

The racetrack does retain the services of Alastair Donald and Adrian Beaumont with the International Racing Bureau plus consultant Nick Clark to keep Arlington Park’s stakes schedule stirring in the minds of European trainers as they map out racing schedules, but nothing replaces the value of face-to-face contact.

“People really do appreciate that you’ve made a special trip,” Petrillo said. “Fortunately, what we heard about was the good hospitality they remember when they’ve come to the International Festival and how much they like the turf course.”

The decision to participate paid off for half of the shippers, with three European-based contenders winning the Beverly D. (I’m A Dreamer), the Secretariat (Bayrir), and the American St. Leger (Jakkalberry). Four other overseas-based runners finished in the money with Afsare finishing second and Colombian dead-heating for third with Rahystrada in the Million; Joviality finishing third in the Beverly D.; and Zuider Zee finishing third in the St. Leger. Out of $2,650,000 offered in total purses for these four stakes, European-based runners took home $1,330,850 or 50% of the pot.

Whenever the best horses are brought together, good things happen for racing as a sport. Attendance at Arlington Park rose 10% from the previous year to 34,022. The grandstand crowd was the largest on Million Day since the racetrack reopened in 1989 and the fourth-highest in the Arlington Million’s 30-year history. The all-sources handle increased 14% to more than $14.78 million, while the ontrack handle rose 13% to nearly $2.9 million.

Once again Million Day has reminded the racing industry that a healthy appetite exists for quality racing.

It was noted during The Jockey Club’s recent Round Table conference that despite the declining foal crop, the number of racing days in North America has gone up in 2012. The industry should take what Arlington has shown us, again, to heart. Thoroughbred racing is a truly international sport, and only fewer racing days with higher quality races will put us on a path toward growth and prosperity.

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