2012 Illinois Racing Year in Review

As live thoroughbred racing in Chicago goes on a six-week hiatus, the winter vacation seems a good time to take a deep breath, reflect, and look back on the year that was.

Sure, there were the standard three thoroughbred meets, the yearly race fixtures, and handle statistics. We'll recap them, and more, in the paragraphs that follow.


From the first Derby Dozen List, TAKE CHARGE INDY was on top. The 2011 Arlington-Washington Futurity runner-up was number one from start to finish in the Derby Preps season, and was the pick on the First Saturday in May. Yours truly had the pleasure of interviewing his trainer, Patrick Byrne, for a prior "Picks and Ponderings" piece. Yours truly also faced some strange looks until his gate-to-wire win in the Florida Derby.  And while he injured himself in that race, he came back with a decent Fall campaign, cashing checks in the Fayette and Clark. He'll be back  next year, starting his four-year-old season in February at Gulfstream in the G1 Donn.

Closer to home, Hawthorne Race Course took charge with a solid Spring meet. Buoyed by collected impact funds from in-state casinos, a warm winter and an early start to the turf season, Hawthorne was able to register handle gains on its biggest day, Illinois Derby Day and all through the meet. Hawthorne was able to take charge of the Spring calendar, providing a solid simulcast signal that lured players far and wide. It all added up to a 27% year-to-year handle increase.

Both of the graded stakes of the spring meet saw upsets. In the G3 Illinois Derby, Maryland-based DONE TALKING won with a closing run. The G3 Sixty Sails saw Oklahoma-bred SHE'S ALL IN get graded stakes glory. Even the Cryptoclearance on Illinois Derby had a winner over $20 in TAPTOWNE.


There are only ten stakes during the Hawthorne Spring meet, but even in such sparse opportunities Francisco Torres made his name known as a big-money rider. He won three state-bred stakes on Illinois Champions Day, including the last one--the Milwaukee Avenue--with P D Q KIDDO. That horse was trained by Roger Brueggemann, who won the training titles at both Hawthorne Spring meets and owned by Midwest Thoroughbreds, who swept the leading owner titles at all three meets.

Torres rode frequently for Midwest and Brueggemann during the Hawthorne Spring meet, and such success allowed him to win the riding title with ease.  When racing shifted to the northwest side, Torres maintained his momentum at Arlington Park. Torres racked up wins in statebred stakes like the Cammack and Isaac Murphy (guiding THIRD CHANCE in both) listed stakes such as the Coach Jimi Lee (won by TIREE), and graded stakes like the Modesty (aboard ROMACACA), Chicago (piloting KITTY IN A TIZZY) and Washington Park (riding MIDDIE). Torres also won the riding crown at Arlington, with one hundred victories during the five month stand.

When racing returned to Hawthorne for the Fall meet, Torres showed no signs of slowing down at first. He piloted ROMACACA to win in the Indian Maid on Gold Cup Day. But as the meet went on, Torres lost some steam. Rumors later in the meet were that he was on the way to Gulfstream in November, but he reappeared during the stakes at the end of the meet. The bouncing Torres finally and fully landed at Gulfstream (and look for him there during the winter), but Torres wouldn't win leading rider during the Hawthorne Fall meet.


Arlington uses roman numerals to count the runnings of the Million. 2012 would be the thirtieth one, Arlington Million XXX. The only American-based winner of the grade-one triple was LITTLE MIKE, with a wire-to-wire finish that humbled handicappers far and wide (including this one).


LITTLE MIKE (front, orange and black silks) leading in the stretch of the G1 Arlington Million. Photo from Four Footed Fotos.

On the undercard, I'M A DREAMER held off the charge of MARKETING MIX to win the G1 Beverly D. BAYRIR closed to triumph in the G1 Secretariat for sophomores. And this year's Million Day program saw a new addition, with the American St. Leger, modeled after the St. Leger in the UK. There,  JACKALBERRY prevailed in the initial running of the marathon turf race. Million Day saw 34,002 spin the turnstiles, easily its best crowd in years.

Arlington's Million Day feeder races also saw some solid performances as well. RAHYSTRADA won from gate to wire in the G3 Arlington Handicap, and built on that to be third in the Million. COZETTI triumphed in a blanket-finish G3 American Derby. IOYA BIGTIME took top honors in the G3 Stars and Stripes, and the aforementioned Cisco Torres was aboard ROMACACA in the G3 Modesty.

X marked the spot for a strong renewal of the G2 Hawthorne Gold Cup, the centerpiece race of the Hawthorne Fall meet. POOL PLAY upset the half million dollar race at 16-1 odds.


On the undercard of Million Day is the Hatoof, which was split into two divisions this year. JULIE'S LOVE won one division and LEADING ASTRAY won the other. The latter would also annex the G3 Pucker Up and hit the board in two more out-of-town three-year-old filly turf races, the G3 Valley View (also split into divisions) and the G2 Mrs. Revere.

But LEADING ASTRAY and wasn't the only Illinois-bred to grab a graded stakes  this year. LA TIA won the G3 Arlington Oaks, and IOYA BIGTIME was a surprise winner of the G3 Stars and Stripes (and later but less surprising, the G3 Kentucky Cup Turf).

Among the locally-owned horses was aforementioned TAKE CHARGE INDY. The same connections have POSTITIVELY, a three year old that may bear watching.  And Chicagoan Morton Fink serves as the owner of Horse of the Year candidate WISE DAN.

And locally based horses did quite well winning open stakes both near and far. There's ROMACACA in the G3 Modesty on Million Preview Day and the Indian Maid, SUNTRACER in the Carey Memorial (also won the Illinois Owners' Stakes, nailing Black Tie Affair winner MR. MISCHIEF on the line), LA TIA in the Purple Violet and La Lorgnette (to go with the local Oaks), NIKKI'S SANDCASTLE in the Sea O' Erin, Claiming Crown Turf, and El Prado--the latter two at Gulfstream, SAINT LEON in the Arlington Sprint over two BC Turf Sprint winners.

Other Illinois-bred stakes winners of note include CAPT. BULLET BOB in the White Oak and SANDIA CREST in the Springfield on Prairie State Festival Day, along with KEPI in the Lady Lionel Stakes on Pucker Up Day.

Woo hoo for the home team.


There's transition every year with new faces coming, old faces going. The Illinois-bred turf female division may feel it the most, with the retirements of PEYOTE PATTY (won Illini Princess, and a restricted to fillies and mares division of the Illinois Owners' Stakes ) and CUMULONIMBLE (won the Lincoln Heritage). THIRD CHANCE, a slam-dunk for Illinois Champion Female Sprinter, heads off to be a broodmare. Perhaps the most notable loss was rider Eddie Razo's death just before the start of Arlington. Solid G3 runner and Arlington Matron victor UPPERLINE also said goodbye to racing.

The new faces include THE PIZZA MAN (won the Tex's Zing at Arlington and the Buck's Boy at Hawthorne), who should be a future force among the Illinois-bred turf male set and rider Rosemary Homeister (who notched wins on DOLLY PEACH on Illinois Champions Day,  and JULMAE in the Showtime Deb). Even the owners of PEYOTE PATTY have one ready for tomorrow, Whitworth Debutante heroine MY OPTION.


When Illinois racing resumes the day after Valentine's Day, it will do so with minimal changes to the graded stakes calendar. Only the Arlington-Washington Lassie (won by GOLD EDGE) going from Grade 3 to listed and the Arlington Classic (won by SILVER MAX) going from listed stakes to Grade 3 serve as the only changes on the calendar. The American St. Leger will need a second running before it's eligible for grading, but it should be a solid Grade 3, if not a Grade 2.

Editorial comment: The moves are agreeable, but not the ones I would have suggested. Would have rather seen the G3 Hanshin Cup (won by HAVELOCK) downgraded to listed. Think it's time to bump the Pucker Up to Grade 2. But the Arlington Classic as a G3 is a thumbs-up move.

Bettors gave Hawthorne Race Course high marks during the Spring meet with its strong handle increases. Attendance was up at the Illinois Derby, and the Million saw its highest crowd in years. Bettors also gave high marks to Arlington, as it churned out a small year-to-year increase.

It should be noted that Arlington has become a sneaky good provider of two-year-olds that have gone to success at three in recent years. She Be Wild, Capt. Candyman Can, ANIMAL KINGDOM, and TAKE CHARGE INDY come to mind. Arlington-Washington Futurity hero PATAKY KID deserves a hard look in the sophomore preps. LASSELL--who triumphed in the Sun Power and CHATFIELD ROAD--the winner of the Edgar Futurity deserve to be followed as three-year-olds.


Time to fess up.

"Picks and Ponderings" does keep statistics on its performance through the year.

Each race has 1-2-3 picks and a longshot to watch. A horse picked first among the 1-2-3 finishers counts as a winner. If it finishes in the top three, it's an "in the money" horse. Ditto for the "longshot to watch".

Out of 113 races for this space, 35 winners and 76 in the money horses were correctly chosen. That translates into a 31% win rate and a 67% in the money rate.

Of equal importance is the return on investment (ROI). Since favorites win at around 33% (and did so during Hawthorne Fall) but have a negative ROI, win percentage is often scoffed at as a single metric. For "Picks and Ponderings", the entire year had a 26.42% ROI based on two dollar wagers.

For each of three meets (as well as the forays to other tracks), here's a more complete breakdown.


"Picks and Ponderings" will be watching two stories that started this year and will continue to develop.

The first took place just days before the Prairie State Festival. In June, Churchill announced a dramatic change to the way horses prepared for the Kentucky Derby. Out was the graded stakes earnings criteria, in was a new Points System that assigned point values to the early three-year-old prep races. But the absence of the Illinois Derby, and the various squabbles that followed, remains a sore issue and one that will play out in the first quarter of the year.

The other story is the EHV-1 quarantine. A day after TWO MONTHS RENT won the G3 Hawthorne Derby in a downpour, the first cases of the virus developed on the Hawthorne backstretch. Said quarantine would stay in effect for the rest of the meet, and remains in effect at publish time. Seven horses would die during the meet. The quarantine would impose restrictions on shipping and racing.  Despite the restrictions, Hawthorne showed growth among in-state ADW wagerers (though that's illegal as of January 1) and maintained field sizes. Despite the restrictions, Hawthorne didn't cancel a day of racing as Hawthorne's fall stakes went on unabated. But Hawthorne's Fall Handle was down seven percent from last fall.

The show still went on, despite the quarantines. Apprentice Alex Canchari was leading rider in the Hawthorne Fall, and the Brueggemann/Midwest Thoroughbreds team took leading trainer/owner team as per the spring. They also cleaned up in the Fall Hawthorne stakes. Their winners included MISSJEANLOUSE in the Powerless, THE PIZZA MAN in the Buck's Boy (also won the Tex's Zing at Arlington against Illinois-breds), and SIGNSEALNDELIVER in the Lightning Jet.

For more detailed recaps of stakes races, check out the far right of the screen (or, click on the categories "Hawthorne" and "Arlington" below). "Picks and Ponderings" will be on a lighter schedule until live racing resumes with the opening day of the Hawthorne Spring meet. Opening day is February 15.

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