The inaugural race is commemorated at Arlington Park with the statute, “Against All Odds,” showing John Henry’s seemingly impossible victory.
John Henry simply refused to let himself get beat when the odds were stacked against him.
And, the odds were stacked against him.
John Henry began as a horse that was supposed to get beaten in races.
He was dismissed as small and mean.
He didn’t have a great pedigree.
His ownership changed hands for pennies on the dollar in his early years.
No one wanted the poor guy.
And, no one expected him to be a good race horse.
Except, John Henry himself.
One day, John Henry decided that he was done being beaten in races.
He packed up his no-name pedigree and low expectations.
He went to the track set out to prove he could win.
And, John Henry prospered in the end.
John Henry won millions in his career and set milestones that defied the odds.
Sixteen years after John Henry claimed his second Arlington Million victory in 1984, Gio Ponti set out to match John Henry’s two-time winning record in the Arlington Millions last Saturday.
Gio Ponti entered the race as the favorite.
He had already won the Arlington Million in 2009.
It seemed a foregone conclusion that Gio Ponti had the race licked from the start.
Yet, Gio Ponti was racing on John Henry’s record-holding ground.
And, John Henry had already proved that anything can happen on that ground.
In the backdrop of Gio Ponti’s bid to match John Henry’s two-time winning record, two horses quietly arrived in the stables at Arlington Park.
The horses had never raced in the United States.
Gosden had run his first horse in the race in 1982.
In the years that followed, he raced a total of seven horses in the Arlington Million and victory had eluded him at every outing.
In January, Gosden signed a 22-year-old Jockey to his overseas stable – William Buick.
Despite being an up-and-coming jockey in England, Buick had never won a race in the United States.
Buick was set to ride Debussy, who entered the gates with final odds of 11-1.
Debussy was competing in the Arlington Million alongside his stable mate, Tazeez.
Tazeez had all the pizzazz of a serious contender.
His betting odds were roughly half of those pegged against Debussy.
In his four starts in 2010, Tazeez hit the board on all occasions.
In contrast, Debussy had only won one race in five starts as a four-year-old.
He never hit the board in the surrounding races.
Tazeez regularly beat Debussy.
It seemed Debussy was almost brought along for the ride, rather than with the idea that he could actually win the Arlington Million.
Yet, like John Henry, Debussy had other plans that day.
He was willing to fight against all odds.
When the gates opened, Tazeez reared while leaving the gate and lost a few lengths at the start.
He eventually caught the pace alongside long shot, Quite a Handful.
And, by the time Tazeez hit the final stretch, he had easily recovered from his rocky start to run 2½ lengths in front of the rest of the field.
It appeared Tazeez had it licked.
Then, Gio Ponti strode past Tazeez like a Rolls Royce and took the lead.
It seemed as if it truly was a foregone conclusion that John Henry’s two-time winning record in the Million was going to be matched by Gio Ponti.
Yet, John Henry doesn’t stand among the ranks of those who are supposed to be good.
He stands with those who have the desire to succeed where failure is seemingly a foregone conclusion.
While Gio Ponti was soaking in the spotlight, he started “idling a little bit, maybe looking at the stands or something,” said his jockey, Ramon Dominguez.
Meanwhile, Debussy struggled in the back of the pack.
He was blocked behind horses.
But, Debussy didn’t see failure as a foregone conclusion.
Just like John Henry, Debussy made a decision that day.
He was done getting beaten on the track.
Debussy packed up his defeated record, bad trip and poor odds.
He set out to win the Arlington Million.
Debussy hugged the rail and drove past his rivals that blocked his path.
And, in his victory, Debussy showed a stunning display of determination to stomp out the odds against him.
It was his first Grade I victory.
It was his first time racing in the United States.
It was William Buick’s first win in North America.
And, it was the culmination of Gosden’s twenty-eight year dream of winning the race.
Debussy delivered it against all odds.
And, he did it without setting out to match John Henry.
Instead, Debussy’s victory paid a tribute to John Henry.
It was a tribute to John Henry’s hard-fought principle that anything can happen in a race where the drive to succeed outweighs the odds against the horse.
Debussy took that lesson to heart.
While racing on the ground where John Henry delivered one of the greatest testaments to the principle, Debussy decided he was done with defeat.
He won against the odds.
He won against his stable mate.
He won against the favorite.
He won one for John Henry.