ARLINGTON MILLION STAKES | PURSE: $1 MILLION | 3-YEAR-OLDS & UP | GRADE 1 | 1 1/4 MILES (TURF)
Few knew the story of Hardest Core, who scratched from the $400,000 American St. Leger at Arlington International Racecourse to run in the Arlington Million.
Fewer still knew the story of his owners, the Bentley family, residents of Unionville, Pa. who own a two-horse stable and purchased the runner as a 30th birthday gift for their son, Andrew, who was born with Down Syndrome.
But after the Million, everyone was talking about the modest shipper who came in from victory in a $50,000 ungraded stakes at Delaware Park to win the purse of $1 million over some of the finest turf runners in the world.
Hardest Core, a 4-year-old Hard Spun gelding ridden by Eriluis Vaz for Andrew Bentley Stables, upset Arlington's biggest day at odds of 11-1 to secure his first graded stakes score, let alone grade I victory. Closing outside from third off the turn with tremendous strides, he gobbled up ground to run down dueling rivals Magician, winner of the 2012 Breeders' Cup Turf, and Side Glance, a grade I winner in Australia.
It was the first time his trainer had entered a runner in a graded stakes event. Graham, 43, has four steeplechase horses in training and two on the flat -- Hardest Core and the other member of the Bentley's 2-horse stable, the 3-year-old filly Giant Shadow.
Prior to the Million, Graham's career earnings as a trainer were $634,675. Including the Million, he has won five of six starts this year. Hardest Core, purchased for $210,000 by Gregory Bentley from the 2013 Keeneland November breeding stock sale when consigned by Adena Springs as a racing or stallion prospect, was initially intended as a potential steeplechaser before his connections decided he might have something left to give on the flat.
"We jumped him a couple times, he's a pure, natural jumper, but we just messed with him, always intentions of flat racing because he was doing so well," Graham said.
Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin for Ghostzapper Racing prior to his sale at Keeneland, Hardest Core was gelded after the November sale and almost lost his life.
"He had a hernia up high and when they cut it, his intestines came out," said Graham. "We had to cut 15-18 feet [of his intestines], we didn't think he was going to make it. We finally got him up to New Bolton and two days later, he was in his feed tub again. He's tough."
Hardest Core then won a June 28 allowance event going 1 1/16 miles on the Parx Racing turf for his new connections before winning the Cape Henlopen Stakes at 1 ½ miles on the Delaware lawn. The Million was his third start of 2014.
Magician, favored to win the Million for trainer Aidan O'Brien at 1.80-1 in a field of seven, pressed a pace set by Side Glance throughout the 1 ¼-mile turf test. Early fractions went in :25, :49.45, and 1:13.67 as those two were tracked by Hardest Core.
Swinging into contention coming off the far turn as mile went in 1:37.72, the eventual winner lost ground slightly while drifting out to the six path, but he found his best stride late and rallied to victory by a length.
Final time was 2:01.51 on a firm course. Hardest Core returned $25, $10.40, and $6 while Magician paid $4.20 and $3 with Side Glance bringing $5. Up With the Birds, Finnegans Wake, Smoking Sun, and Real Solution, ajudged winner of the 2013 Arlington Million, completed the order of finish.
"I thought a shorter field would be better, and the horse was training so well," said Graham. "He doesn't know what he's going against, and he showed it today."
Bred in Kentucky by Mueller Farms out of the Housebuster mare Lillybuster, Hardest Core improved his record to six wins and two seconds from 11 starts for earnings of $842,580. He sold to Adena Springs as an $87,000 yearling in 2011 at the Fasig-Tipton October sale after failing to meet his reserve for the Bluegrass Thoroughbred Services consignment at the Keeneland January and Keeneland September sales.