Rethinking Illinois Champion Categories

Late last week, we published our votes for 2016 Illinois champions, along with rationale.

Ever since compiling my ballot, I have had my mind on a shortcoming in the Illinois-bred awards categories.  Illinois should replace "Older Male" and "Older Female" with more specific categories that recognise older males and females that go route distances on the main track.

There is national precedent for a similar change.  Before 2015, the Eclipse Awards had the more general "Older Male" and "Older Female" categories, just like Illinois still does.  But, that led to the top horses in the handicap division getting left out in the cold when one turf horse dominated the division from gate to wire.  Under the heading "Older Male", Wise Dan and Main Sequence deserved the spoils in their years.  But, that left no place for the likes of Mucho Macho Man, Game On Dude, Fort Larned, and Palace Malice.

In 2015, the Eclipse Awards closed that gap by replacing those broader standards with more specific "Older Dirt Male" and "Older Dirt Female" categories.  They are not perfect -- as they still leave room for a dominant sprinter to outshine the route division -- but they are an improvement.  But, they have had the effect of recognising the top older handicap division horse: Honor Code in 2015, and California Chrome last year.

Like the Eclipse Awards did before 2015, Illinois has "Older Male" and "Older Female" categories.  I voted accordingly, assessing all older males and females regardless of what surface they raced on.  After all, those were the qualifications.

But, like the national awards used to have, Illinois has a yawning gap.

The state has divisions for turf male and female, as well as sprint male and female.  But, this leaves main-track routers without their own division for recognition.  With so much turf racing in Illinois, and so many of Illinois's best being grass horses, this leaves older Illinois-bred horses who go longer on either dirt or polytrack unlikely to be recognised for their achievements.

And, that's a shame.

It stung not to have a place for Valiant City on my Illinois Champions ballot.  His third-place finish in the Hanshin Cup (G3), in which he was game from gate to wire along a pace that otherwise collapsed, was as impressive a main-track performance as any Illinois-bred male turned in all year long. He also had a trio of open allowance-optional triumphs -- including one at Churchill Downs.

Valiant City was the best main-track handicap horse Illinois had last year.  But, under the "Older Males" heading, he has to line up behind horses who already had their own divisions, a smattering of turf horses and sprinters.

Even on the fillies' and mares' side?  I ranked Streamline first in the Older Female category, but there's an argument one could make to put Lovely Loyree there, too.  Lovely Loyree had an excellent season -- but she also has her own division, the Turf Female division.  Streamline had, by far, the best 2016 season of any Illinois-bred main-track route mare.  There should not be a question over whether she captures a state championship -- and yet, there is.

The current system does a disservice to older horses who do their best going two turns on the main, as well as to the connections of those horses.  It is time for Illinois to follow suit with the Eclipse Awards, and to give its state-bred dirt and all-weather routers their due.  Changing "Older Male" and "Older Female" to more specific categories would do that.

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