At Arlington Park near Chicago, the 29th running of the first Thoroughbred race ever to offer a seven-figure purse features a rematch between Cape Blanco and Gio Ponti. That duo finished 1-2 in last month's Man o' War at Belmont Park and both inhabit the rarified atmosphere of top-rank international competition.
Gio Ponti, a 6-year-old son of Tale of the Cat, won the Million two years ago and finished second to Debussy last year. His is bidding to become only the second two-time winner, after the legendary John Henry. Gio Ponti finished fifth in a strangely run Dubai World Cup this March, then finished third in the Manhattan Handicap before finishing second in the Man o' War.
Cape Blanco, a 4-year-old, Irish-bred Galileo colt, was fifth in the World Cup, then fourth in the Prix Ganay at Longchamp and a well-beaten sixth in the 1-mile Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot before trainer Aidan O'Brien shipped him to New York for the Man o' War.
Although those two dominate the morning-line odds, the Million is far from a match race. Mission Approved, a front-running type who won the Manhattan two starts back, will try again for owner/trainer Naipaul Chatterpaul. Wigmore Hall will start for the first time since finishing seventh, beaten less than 4 lengths, in the Singapore Cup in May, and Tajaaweed, winner of the last local prep for the Million, also will try to take a step up.
The companion $750,000, Grade I Beverly D., for fillies and mares features a trio of favorites in French-bred Stacelita, South African runner River Jetez and British-bred Cheetah. All have international credentials. Last year's winner, German-bred Éclair de Lune, is back for an encore try in the colors of Arlington Chairman Richard L. Duchossois.
Irish Derby winner Treasure Beach, also conditioned by O'Brien, is the morning-line pick in the $400,000, Grade I Secretariat, for 3-year-olds on the lawn. The British-bred Galileo colt comes off a disappointing fourth in the Grand Prix de Paris at Longchamp. Willcox Inn won the first two legs of Arlington's all-grass "Mid America Triple" and will try to nail down the third leg in the Secretariat.
At Saratoga in upstate New York, the morning-line favorite for the $500,000, Grade I Sword Dancer is the 2008 Secretariat winner, Winchester. After a disappointing trip to Hong Kong in December, the 6-year-old son of Theatrical returned to action last month with a second-place finish in the Stars and Stripes Handicap at Arlington for trainer Christophe Clement.
Competition in the Sword Dancer includes United Nations winner Teaks North; Boisterous, who finished third behind Cape Blanco and Gio Ponti in the Man o' War; and Grassy, coming off a close second in the Singspiel at Woodbine in June.
Also on the grass are Friday's $150,000, Grade I National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Stakes at Saratoga and Saturday's $150,000, Grade II La Jolla Handicap at Del Mar, both for 3-year-olds, and the $250,000 John C. Mabee Stakes for fillies and mares on Sunday at Del Mar.
The $150,000, Grade III Monmouth Oaks runs Saturday, as does Ellis Park's showpiece, the $100,000, Grade III Gardenia Stakes at 1 mile for fillies and mares.
Two-year-old fillies have the $150,000, Grade II Adirondack Stakes at Saratoga on Sunday and the $150,000 (Canadian) Ontario Debutante at Woodbine on Saturday.
Notable deaths of 2014 [PHOTOS]