Not for a million dollars

Questing looks to repeat her Alabama Stakes romp in Saturday's Cotillion. NYRA/Adam Coglianese

When nobody, or nearly nobody, wants to race for a million mazumas, horsemen lack much more than good fillies. But there it is, Saturday's $1 million Cotillion at Parx Racing with a quartet of a field.

Yes, the Cotillion will still be interesting and exciting, but it lacks intrigue. It's a whodunit with only two possible whos, and some might say only one. It's also a little embarrassing, don't you think, because its paucity suggests that horsemen either have so much money they can ignore a million-dollar jackpot or else have some spirochete of heebie-jeebies burrowing into their brains.

And when did that happen? When Questing won the Alabama by nine lengths, perhaps, and media and horsemen all screamed, "Look, it's a bird; it's a plane"? Nobody, or nearly nobody, wants to take on Questing, not even for a million simoleons, and especially not if it means taking on My Miss Aurelia, too. And so there's a field of four. Embarrassing.

Eleven were bold enough, brave enough, to take on Secretariat in the Canadian International, where he won by more than six lengths in the final start of his legendary career. Nine lined up against the great Dr. Fager when he set a world record in the Washington Park Handicap. When Seattle Slew and Affirmed met in the Marlboro Cup, four others joined them. Nine were audacious enough, sporting enough, to challenge Cigar in an historical moment called the Citation Challenge. Seven got in the gate with Curlin for the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

I know, I know: Spectacular Bid was handed the Woodward in a walkover; Affirmed once won an exhibition against only two "rivals"; and after he won the Preakness, Man o' War never raced in a field that couldn't be counted on one hand, often with some economy of fingers. Discretion has a long history.

But the Cotillion offers a purse jingling with clams, boodle, shekels and wampum, and when only four show up to race for such a treasure that's not only embarrassing, but it's also disrespectful of tradition. One of the sport's oldest traditions is to race for the money. Each and every time there's a million-dollar race with a field that has fewer members than a rock band, it only convinces racetracks they should use the money differently.

A million-dollar purse means finishing third is worth $110,000. Fourth is good for $60,000. And fifth would be worth $30,000 -- but, of course, there will be no fifth because only four entered. Embarrassing.

Maybe horsemen could take a lesson from The University of Louisiana at Monroe and its 8,500 or so students. To open the football season, Louisiana-Monroe sent its football team to Little Rock to play a "home" game against the University of Arkansas, a member of the formidable SEC. For little Louisiana-Monroe, it was what's often called a "paycheck" game -- that is, a beating-for-cash played against a top-tier opponent.

Louisiana-Monroe received $950,000, a huge paycheck for a financially strapped athletic department. But needing the cash didn't mean they couldn't play football or had to accept the beating. The Warhawks, as it turned out, upset Arkansas, 34-31, in overtime. And the next week, in a second "paycheck" game, this one worth more than a million dollars, the Warhawks traveled to Auburn, where they nearly upset another SEC school before losing in overtime, 31-28.

And so that's what you get these days for a million bucks: a superhero, a champion and the Dixie chicks.

Anyway, it's embarrassing, but there it is: four horses racing for a million bucks in a Cotillion that has turned into something of a private dance party. And Saturday night, how many owners and trainers will regret not having entered?

Wonderful though she may be, Questing could be vulnerable Saturday; Kryptonite's in the air. Her two races at Saratoga weren't especially tough or dramatic in that she won easily, but they were demanding and fast. She poured herself, all of herself, into the Alabama. After streaking headlong through a mile, she drifted through the stretch, then ducked in from a right-handed whip, then drifted out again and then ducked in again. After that 1 1/4 miles and that erratic run down the lane, how much did she leave for the Cotillion?

Her trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin, said he expects her to be on the early lead Saturday, and he said he'll instruct her jockey, Irad Ortiz Jr., not to use his whip until necessary. And so McLaughlin thinks the whip will be necessary?

My Miss Aurelia, the champion juvenile filly of a year ago, appears poised to step forward Saturday. Making her seasonal debut in a minor stakes at Saratoga, she ducked out at the break, spotting the field about three lengths, and settled comfortably into last place, content to wait, and then she swept by horses while running a third quarter-mile in about 23.42 seconds. She seemed rather bored with it all in the final furlong, pulling away to win by three, her fifth victory in as many starts.

Moment In Dixie and Dixie Strike complete the field. And that's the quartet. That's the Cotillion, or rather the private dance party. And so that's what you get these days for a million bucks: a superhero, a champion and the Dixie chicks.