By Alicia Wincze Hughes
ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Illinois – The heart and soul of Arlington Park is rooted in the fact it was literally built on creating surreal results from seemingly impossible conditions.
Twenty nine years ago, the oft-proclaimed “Miracle” edition of the track’s signature Grade I Arlington Million race was improbably contested 25 days after a fire burned the old facility the earth.
The 31,164 in attendance who witnessed Saturday’s 32nd running of the 1 1/4-miles turf showcase can say they saw a rendition of the test that was a ridiculous marvel to behold its own right.
Hardest Core wasn’t just an upset victor. The 4-year-old gelding who crossed the wire one length in front of six rivals is an example of why hope and chance is the very lifeblood the drives the Thoroughbred industry.
The former would-be steeplechase prospect who nearly died shortly after landing in his new owners’ care last November ran by reigning Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Magician to capture an edition of the Arlington Million that would conservatively be described as a stunner and tear-jerker.
On past credentials, Hardest Core wasn’t in the same zip code as his six challengers in the field that featured defending race winner Real Solution, the aforementioned Magician and Canadian champion Up With the Birds.
In terms of backstory and heart, try finding a equal to the gelded son of Hard Spun. Gregory Bentley purchased the horse for $210,000 at the 2013 Keeneland November Breeding Stock sale and gifted him to his son Andrew – who has Down Syndrome – as a 30th birthday present.
While the Bentleys initially thought the dark bay horse could have a future in steeplechase racing, all plans shifted when Hardest Core nearly lost his life after complications upon him being gelded.
“We got him cut and the next day, he was laying down acting colicy in the field. When I got to him I saw that his intestines were coming out,” said trainer Edward Graham, a former steeplechase rider. “We weren’t sure if he was going to get up, by some miracle he got up. We got him to the New Bolton Center (in Pennsylvania) and…they cut like 15-18 feet (of his intestines).
“Three days after the operation, he was in the feed tub, banging the feed tub. He’s tough.”
Such fortitude is possessed by the most exceptional of animals and with his recovery underway, Hardest Core also convinced his people he probably still had something left in terms of flat racing, having won three of his prior eight starts.
In his first start for Graham and the Bentley family at Parx this June, he won a 1 1/16-miles allowance turf test by three lengths. The Cape Henlopen Stakes at Delaware Park produced the same results and after debating between the Million and going in the American St. Leger on the day’s undercard, the former won out – as did the gelding himself.
“I’m very proud of Andrew’s continued interest in racing and…it’s just another example of believing in people and what they can accomplish given the chance,” said Gregory Bentely, who lives in Unionville, PA and works in the software business. “We were pretty philosophical about his expectations (after surgery) but his resilience was amazing. We didn’t want to rule out anything in terms of his potential because you could say it’s all been upside.
“He has a certain character and steadfastness.”
There is also the matter of his athleticism and turn of foot.
Sent off at odds of 11-to-1 under jockey Eriluis Vaz, Hardest Core saved ground on the inside path while tracking midpack just inside of Real Solution as Side Glance cut fractions of :25, :49.45 and 1:13.67 on the front end.
Magician, who stalked Side Glance throughout, angled out under Joseph O’Brien and began unleashing the kick that earned him Breeders’ Cup accolades as the field rounded the final turn.
Vaz did a masterful job of keeping Hardest Core balanced as he bobbled slightly while swinging out to take aim at the two leaders. Despite drifting out in the lane, the duo kept coming en route to hitting the wire in 2:01.51 over a course rate firm.
“He’s a good horse, he’s a nice horse, and I knew he was going to make his run,” said Vaz. “I have to thank the owner and the trainer, they have been so supportive, and it’s amazing.”
Real Solution, who was attempting to become the first back-to-back winner of the Million, faded badly after racing along in third early on, finishing last in the seven-horse field.
“I had a beautiful trip, unfortunately he didn’t show up today,” jockey Javier Castellano said.
Previously trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, Hardest Core improved his record to six wins from 11 career starts with $842,580 in earnings.
A trip to the Breeders’ Cup Turf was earned should his connections so chose as a virtue of his Million triumph.
Graham laughed he had ‘no idea’ was the next immediate goal may be. They also didn’t rule out one day trying the gelding over fences.
No one would question them right now for thinking he can achieve all that is asked.
“I only get excited (watching Hardest Core),” Andrew Bentley said. “Never nervous.”
In the day’s other Grade I contests at Arlington Park, Team Valor’s Euro Charline made it worth her connection’s while to ship her halfway across the globe as she prevailed by three-quarters of a length over Grade I winner Stephanie’s Kitten in the $750,000 Beverly D.
Euro Charline, who had been running in England, became the first 3-year-old to win the 1 3/16 miles Beverly D. and will now remain in the states under the care of trainer Todd Pletcher.
The Grade I, $500,000 Secretariat Stakes saw even-money favorite Adelaide live up to his billing when he stalked the pace of front-running Tourist and overtook that one despite drifting way wide in the stretch to triumph by 1 1/2 lengths.
Adelaide was making his second start in the states, having run second in the Grade I Belmont Derby on July 5.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.