Underdog Little Mike took home the 2012 Arlington Million purse.

As the announcer so poignantly noted, the 2012 Arlington Million that took place last Saturday, August 18, was “Little Mike’s Million.” While odds suggested that Treasure Beach and Boisterous were favorites, the two horses and many other top picks did not finish near first. Instead, Little Mike and jockey Ramon Dominguez led the way from beginning to end.

A few tense moments ensued when the horse Afsare bucked and nearly refused to be loaded into the starting gate—but the incident had little impact on Little Mike. Once the starting bell rang, it seemed there was no stopping the horse, whose commanding lead was established immediately. The sheer power of the horses and the energy that can only come from competing in a race as prestigious as the Million was palpable, bringing the crowd to its feet long before the competitors crossed the finish line.

And with that, another Million went into the history books. Little did Arlington Park know when it held the first Arlington Million in 1981 that the event would rise to international acclaim. But when a thoroughbred named John Henry clenched the first ever million-dollar purse during an electrifying photo finish that premier year, he made history and cemented the Arlington Million’s reputation as the race—both to compete in and attend.

“It became an instant classic off that photo finish,” says David Zenner, senior manager of communications at Arlington Park. “The million-dollar purse allowed us to have the focus not only of the US, but of the world.”

In the 30 years since that inaugural race, the world’s fascination with the Arlington Million and gorgeous grounds of the Arlington Park racetrack have not wavered. There were setbacks, of course: the race did not run for two years, and in 1985, the track burnt down 25 days before the Million. The community rose to the occasion and saved the race. “Through real Herculean efforts of thousands of people, we removed the rubble of the old building and put up a temporary facility,” Zenner explains. The against-the-odds circumstances brought out nearly 40,000 spectators, who watched Teleprompter win what came to be known as the “Miracle Million.”

Today’s races draw some of the most prestigious names in racing from across the globe—England, Ireland, France, and Germany, for example—all with their eyes on that elusive prize. The other races that took place that weekend, The Beverly D., The Secretariat Stakes, and the American St. Leger, also had major purses attached.

Off the track, Chicago’s elite flocked to the brand-new Million VIP Lounge, a new-this-year space Zenner calls Arlington Park’s version of the Kentucky Derby’s Millionaires Row. Complete with private mutuel clerks, a silent auction, and an outdoor viewing area, the VIP Lounge exuded an elegant yet energized ambience. And, of course, a red carpet entrance welcomed guests into the Chicago racing party of the year. “It’s kicking things up a notch from the normal Million experience,” Zenner says.

An extensive menu of club fare such as gourmet flatbreads and bruschetta, combined with a premium open bar featuring Bacardi 8 Rum, Ketel One Vodka, and more, transformed a day of racing into a delectable culinary experience. Guests danced to DJ Summer Altice, an of-the-moment DJ seen in hit movies such as Wedding Crashers, and ended the day at an exclusive afterparty at Lumen Chicago downtown (839 W. Fulton St., 312-733-2222).

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