“If I had a European runner and took a look at this field, I wouldn’t come over, either.”
So said Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham to the Chicago Tribune on the eve of the 1987 Arlington Million. Inaugurated in 1981 as the first seven-figure Thoroughbred race in history, the Million was, unsurprisingly, an immediate hit with horsemen on both sides of the Atlantic. And after six Millions the score was tied at 2 between John Henry [1981 and 1984], Charlie Whittingham (Perrault  and Estrapade ), and Europe (Tolomeo  and Teleprompter ).
The retired John Henry could score no more, so it was left to either Whittingham or Europe to potentially break the tie in 1987. However, as Whittingham noted, European-based horses were conspicuously absent from that year’s Million, for several very good reasons.
The biggest of all was Manila. The 1986 U.S. grass champion had not only beaten European superstar Dancing Brave and Estrapade in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) at Santa Anita the previous fall, but had continued his amazing grass form well into his four-year-old season. The son of Lyphard brought a 13-10-3-0 mark on turf into the Million, though with a proverbial chip on his shoulder following an upset loss to Talakeno in the Bernard Baruch H. (G2), a loss trainer LeRoy Jolley blamed on the sweltering Saratoga heat. Manila had also conceded 12 pounds to the winner in the half-length defeat.
Reasons two and three were actually former European mainstays Theatrical and Sharrood, both of whom saw their careers take off in America. Tenth in the 1986 Million in just his second U.S. appearance, Theatrical next placed three times in Grade 1 company under the care of trainer Bobby Frankel, including a neck loss to Manila in the Breeders’ Cup.
Placed with Bill Mott at the beginning of the season, Theatrical entered the Million off four straight wins in the Hialeah Turf Cup (G1), Red Smith H. (G2), Bowling Green H. (G1) and Sword Dancer H (G1), the latter via the disqualification of the Paul Mellon-owned Dance of Life. Sharrood, meanwhile, had won three of his four starts for the then California-based John Gosden, including back-to-back wins in the Stars and Stripes (G3) at Arlington and Eddie Read (G1) at Del Mar.
Dance of Life himself was also in the Million picture at entry time. Possessing a grass record of 14-6-6-1, the Mack Miller trainee had a 5 1/2-length win in the Sword Dancer negated after interfering with Theatrical in upper stretch, and had also been taken down in a Grade 3 event at the Meadowlands the previous fall. The son of Nijinsky II was clearly a horse on the rise, though, with wins in the 1986 Man o’ War (G1) and 1987 Tidal H. (G2) and Fort Marcy H. (G3) to his credit.
The Fab Four became three on Million morning when Dance of Life was scratched due to a swollen ankle. Five others made up the Million field: the Whittingham-trained Rivlia and Forlitano; Explosive Darling, owned by Arlington chairman Dick Duchossois; and the outsiders Glaros and Spellbound.
The video below can better tell the story of the 1987 Million than mere words, but suffice it to say Manila proved most dominating as the even-money choice under Angel Cordero Jr., who had inherited the mount after a dispute between Jolley and jockey Jacinto Vasquez. Sharrood, the 7-2 third choice, finished 3 1/4 lengths ahead of 2-1 second favorite Theatrical.
“Manila sprinted the last quarter of a mile faster than any horse I’ve ever ridden, running that long a race,” said Cordero, who obviously could tell the champion got the final split in 22 and change. “If my life depended on two horses, I would pick him and Seattle Slew to ride.”
I once described the 1987 Million as my favorite of all the ones I’ve watched, but it’s also a terribly bittersweet one. Manila fractured a cannon bone less than two weeks after winning the Million and was retired. Not only was the Million his last race, but the immensely talented Sharrood and Dance of Life also never ran again.
In Manila’s absence, Theatrical finished off his campaign with consecutive Grade 1 wins in the Turf Classic, Man o’ War, and Breeders’ Cup Turf. His longevity and Grade 1 accomplishments swayed more Eclipse Award voters in his direction as he won the turf male championship and nearly won Horse of the Year over Ferdinand. However, as I wrote two years ago:
“I fervently believe Manila was the best horse to set foot on a racetrack in the U.S., and possibly the world, in 1987. That he lost both awards, and had to wait 21 years for induction into the Hall of Fame, was most lamentable.”
Thirty years on from his Arlington Million, Manila to me is still the all-time American king of the turf.