Picks & Ponderings is proud to announce that it is voting once again for equine champions in Illinois. Once again, both halves of Picks and Ponderings are casting ballots -- we each do so independently. Both of us explain our decisions here.
Votes are made for Illinois Horse of the Year, as well as in a number of categories organized by age, sex, distance, and surface. As always, the Illinois Breeders and Thoroughbred Owners Foundation (ITBOF) conducts this vote.
On the ballot we mark our first, second, and third place horses in each division, and weighted (a 5-3-1 scoring system) point values are assigned based on those votes. Most points gets the glory; first-place votes break the tie. Our ballots are online (Nicolle Neulist, Paul Mazur), but what follow are our explanations behind them.
Two Year Old Male
NN: 1. DEVILEYE 2. SHAKURR 3. ALL STRIKES
In three starts at age two, DEVILEYE posted three smart and mature wins. That included a victory in the Jim Edgar Illinois Futurity, where he ran down SHAKURR as if he was standing still. DEVILEYE wins this division as much the best. SHAKURR finished a clear second in the Jim Edgar in his first try going two turns, and also posted a comfortable maiden special weight victory at Hawthorne. ALL STRIKES remains a maiden, but his third-place finish in the Jim Edgar was enough to get him a third-place vote here since no other Illinois-bred two-year-old male posted an impressive enough win to outweigh ALL STRIKES's stakes placing.
PM: 1. DEVILEYE 2. SHAKURR 3. ALL STRIKES
It's a good thing the preface text says "we cast our votes independently" because my top three match Nicolle's line-for-line. There were only three spots on the ballot, and each are occupied by the 1-2-3 of the state's only frosh male stakes, the $50,000-added Jim Edgar Illinois Futurity. S.D. Brilie LP's DEVILEYE successfully stretched out to a route in annexing the Edgar and ended his two year old campaign blemish free. Of the two remaining, SHAKURR is on the only other to get the diploma, doing so during Hawthorne's fall meet. ALL STRIKES cashed a third place check and get spot three more-or-less by default.
Two Year Old Filly
NN: 1. BABYBLUESBDANCING 2. JOLEE 3. SHE'S FINE TUNED
BABYBLUESBDANCING took a few starts to figure it out, but once she got her diploma, no one could stop her. She posted daylight victories in her last three starts of the year, including a clear win in the Pat Whitworth Illinois Debutante. Though fourth behind BABYBLUESBDANCING in the Whitworth, JOLEE's maiden victory at Hawthorne was as impressive a win as any Illinois-bred juvenile filly ran all year. She returned late in the Hawthorne meet to win an open N1X as well -- and this body of work surpasses that of the two maidens who hit the board in the Whitworth. Though Spring City Gal nipped her for second on stakes day, SHE'S FINE TUNED had a better overall body of work, including some underneath shares in open maiden special weight company at Arlington and Hawthorne.
PM: 1. BABYBLUESBDANCING 2. SHE'S FINE TUNED 3. JOLEE
Once again, the stakes winner among the three on the ballot gets the spoils. Once again, this is a category with only three listed horses on the ballot. BABYBLUESBDANCING is the latest in a long of "BDANCING" runners in Gore colors - Terrel trains, Lizabeth owns - and she took the Whitworth going a route of ground, doing so over third place Whitworth finisher SHE's FINE TUNED. SHE'S FINE TUNED ended the year a maiden, but nibbled throughout the year and hit the board six times in eight tries. Like Nicolle, I'm going off the ballot with JOLEE who won an open first level allowance and maiden special weight during the Hawthorne fall meet. She wasn't in stakes company, however.
Three Year Old Male:
NN: 1. WHATEVERYBODYWANTS 2. CASHEL ROCK 3. SHOGOOD
WHATEVERYBODYWANTS broke his maiden against state-breds at Arlington in May, but quickly moved on to bigger things. He won the Prairie Mile against open three-year-olds in Iowa, and then hit the superfecta in three graded stakes through the summer. His class prevails. CASHEL ROCK was third behind WHATEVERYBODYWANTS in the Prairie Mile, which may have been a bit long for him. He did win the six-furlong Golden Circle at Prairie, as well as an allowance score against older. CASHEL ROCK also hit the board in a turf stakes behind a couple of serious lawnmowers, One Mean Man and Oscar Nominated. SHOGOOD won the WEBN at Turfway, and finished second behind the graded-calibre Noholdingback Bear in the Woodstock Stakes at Woodbine. He also won a classy turf sprint allowance against older at Arlington, conquering salty foes like Mongol Bull and El Seventyseven.
PM: 1. WHATEVERYBODYWANTS 2. CASHEL ROCK 3. SHOGOOD
It only took a listed stakes winner to win this category, but WHATEVERYBODYWANTS also took down big checks finishes in three of the B-level summer Derbies - Indiana, West Virginia, and Super - to mix with a listed win in Iowa earlier in the year. The Farm on 4 LLC's charge, by recently deceased Giant Oak, stands tall here thanks to work in those graded races. CASHEL ROCK also won a minor open stakes in Iowa and was ambitiously sent east for the G3 Jersey Shore against sophomore sprinters at Monmouth, but didn't disgrace himself in turf races in New Orleans early in the year - though his future is likely on the dirt going short. SHOGOOD may be a niche horse - a polytrack sprinter - but his work at Turfway in an early spiral prep and in Canada make him the pick over the 1-2 from Million Day's Bruce D. Memorial. Another clean sweep category.
Three Year Old Filly:
NN: 1. GO LADY JAY 2. DANDY GAL 3. MISSALANEY
Purple Violet winner GO LADY JAY was the only Illinois-bred sophomore filly to win a stakes race last year. She also racked up a pair of allowance victories against older, and showed the versatility to route or sprint. DANDY GAL bypassed the Purple Violet to sprint against older in the Isaac Murphy, and finished a solid second behind Puntsville. That was her only stakes try -- but all eleven of her starts last year came against older, and she got her picture taken after five of them. MISSALANEY checked in third behind GO LADY JAY in the Purple Violet. She also had an open stakes placing in the Gasparilla at Tampa Bay Downs and a win in a good one-other-than turf route against older at Arlington last summer. All in all, she did well enough against classier company to get the nod for third here, over Purple Violet second Flin Flon.
PM: 1. GO LADY JAY 2. DANDY GAL 3. MISSALANEY
The sophomore males were voted 1-2-3 with our ballots matching. The sophomore females go 1-2-3 as well, with GO LADY JAY's win going a mile out of Arlington's chute the ace card in this division. Only four fillies were on the ballot, and the John Truscott-owned GO LADY JAY is only the one to win a stakes. DANDY GAL has a silver medal behind Puntsville in Arlington's Isaac Murphy, and that gives her the edge over Purple Violet runner up Flin Flon or MISSALANEY, who was third in the Purple Violet and started her year with a stakes placing at Tampa. The G2 Indiana Oaks against Family Tree was a bridge too far, but she did get a win against elders on the Arlington weeds.
NN: 1. THE PIZZA MAN 2. RECOUNT 3. CAMMACK
THE PIZZA MAN kept the classiest company of any Illinois-bred last year, and was the only 2016 graded stakes winner bred in the state. He won the Northern Dancer (G1) at Woodbine, hit the board in the River City (G3) at Churchill, and was rarely well beaten even if he didn't hit the board. Once again, THE PIZZA MAN reigns supreme. RECOUNT had three wins and five more money finishes in twelve starts last year, including a gritty victory over Holy Boss in the Bet on Sunshine Stakes. He mostly faced open company in stakes and top-shelf allowance races. But, he made his one start against Illinois-breds count: a repeat victory in the Addison Cammack Handicap. CAMMACK rattled off six wins in a row, including a victory against Illinois-breds in the Black Tie Affair Handicap, and a win in a starter allowance at Kentucky Downs that awarded its victor a berth in the Claiming Crown. Most impressive was CAMMACK's victory in an open allowance on July 31, in which he dismantled a field featuring some of the best Chicago-based turf horses.
PM: 1. THE PIZZA MAN 2. RECOUNT 3. DOMAIN'S RAP
Finally, some genuine dissent among the two Picks & Ponderings voters - but only for the third spot on this category. Midwest Thoroughbred's THE PIZZA MAN gets the call here. His win in the G1-CDN Northern Dancer at Woodbine is more than enough in this category. After a once too often to the well race at Gulfstream, he brought his dependable closing rally to grab some superfecta finishes in the G3 Stars & Stripes, G2 Wise Dan, and G3 River City. RECOUNT's win in an autumn open stakes at Churchill and in the Cammack Handicap against state-breds at Arlignton are enough to grab a medal placing over a turf-heavy division. Third went to DOMAIN'S RAP, who seems to have found new life on Oaklawn's handicap circuit and parlayed his work into a second in the G3 Razorback. The G2 Oaklawn Handicap saw him in too deep, but he did hit the board in a listed stakes in Iowa once Oaklawn closed for the year.
NN: 1. STREAMLINE 2. LOVELY LOYREE 3. PRADO'S SWEET RIDE
STREAMLINE found the podium in all six of her starts last year -- and all six of those tries came against open fillies and mares. She loved Oaklawn, where she won the Pippin Stakes and then hit the board in three graded events, including the Apple Blossom (G1). She also started twice at Churchill, including a second-place finish in the Falls City Handicap (G2). LOVELY LOYREE finished in the money in all five of her starts last year, including a win in the Indiana General Assembly Distaff. She held her own in graded stakes company as well, finishing third behind champion Tepin in a pair of races at Tampa Bay Downs. PRADO'S SWEET RIDE disappointed in her first few starts, but got back on the rails nicely in the second half of the year. She won the Minnesota HBPA Distaff at Canterbury, and rallied for shares in both a salty allowance at Keeneland and the Blushing K. D. Stakes at Fair Grounds.
PM: 1. STREAMLINE 2. LOVELY LOYREE 3. PRADO'S SWEET RIDE
Another clean sweep category. Oaklawn's distaff series in the winter and early spring is top-shelf, and Nancy Vanier homebred STREAMLINE took an early feeder to the G1 Apple Blossom while staying in good enough form to earn a second in the G1 Apple Blossom. She closed out her year with a second in the G2 Falls City Handicap on Thanksgiving weekend. LOVELY LOYREE was no match for Tepin in a pair of graded stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, but she did match STREAMLINE's triumph at the open stakes level with a win on the Indiana Derby night undercard. PRADO'S SWEET RIDE won an open stakes in Minnesota and hit the board in a New Orleans stakes at year's end after starting her year with a clunker at Gulfstream. Her work in open stakes gets her the call over the statebred types.
NN: 1. RECOUNT 2. CASHEL ROCK 3. SHOGOOD
Though RECOUNT held his own going a route of ground (including in a try going two turns on the grass!), both of his stakes wins last year came at six panels, as did his open three-other-than win at Churchill. CASHEL ROCK was another who sometimes sprinted and sometimes ran longer. But, all three of his victories (including a stakes at Prairie Meadows) came at one turn on the dirt. He also finished a creditable second behind Parx savant (and G3 winner) Trouble Kid over that horse's home turf. SHOGOOD beat open three-year-olds going six and a half panels in the WEBN at Turfway, and finished second behind eventual Gallant Bob (G3) winner Noholdingback Bear at Woodbine (the winner's home course). SHOGOOD also beat salty older horses in a turf dash allowance at Arlington -- in his first ever try on the grass.
PM: 1. RECOUNT 2. CASHEL ROCK 3. SHOGOOD
More agreement from the P&P duo. RECOUNT won two stakes going the traditional six furlong sprint distance, giving him more than CASHEL ROCK (one) and SHOGOOD (zero). Doubledown Stables' RECOUNT won the Addison Cammack Handicap over Arlington poly for the second straight year and took Churchill's Bet On Sunshine - an open listed stakes in the fall. Those who feel sprint races are anything around one turn would also include his fourth while doing the dirty work in the G3 Hanshin Cup at Arlington. No matter the definition, there's no need for a RECOUNT in this category. CASHEL ROCK started his year going two turns on New Orleans weeds, but did enough work in this division with a win in the Golden Circle Stakes at Prairie Meadows to earn a trip east to the G3 Jersey Shore and didn't disgrace himself in an upper-crust Parx allowance against Trouble Kid. SHOGOOD won the WEBN - an early Spiral Stakes prep - at Turfway going six and a half furlongs. His Woodstock second north of the border is solid, given the winner later took the G3 Gallant Bob in the fall. RECOUNT, CASHEL ROCK, and SHOGOOD were the only stakes winners on the ballot as well.
NN: 1. PUNTSVILLE 2. RICHIES SWEETHEART 3. DANDY GAL
This division is a minefield: two mares were clearly best, but neither had a good year so much as they had a really good race or two. In the balance, PUNTSVILLE gets the nod. Though RICHIES SWEETHEART beat boys in the Honor the Hero at Canterbury, that was the only time she hit the board in six starts all year. PUNTSVILLE, on the other hand, holds a three-to-nothing advantage head to head against RICHIES SWEETHEART. Though PUNTSVILLE's stakes victory came in the Isaac Murphy Handicap -- a six-furlong polytrack race, which is more her forte than RICHIES SWEETHEART's -- PUNTSVILLE also finished ahead of RICHIES SWEETHEART in both the Brandywine Stakes and the Lightning City Stakes. Advantage, PUNTSVILLE. DANDY GAL did not win a stakes race last year, but the sophomore finished a good second behind older PUNTSVILLE in the Isaac Murphy Handicap. As consistent a horse as the Illinois-bred sprint female division had, DANDY GAL won five times in eleven starts, and only missed the board twice all year. All five of those wins came in allowance or allowance-optional company, and all five came in sprints.
PM: 1. PUNTSVILLE 2. RICHIES SWEETHEART 3. DANDY GAL
PUNTSVILLE and RICHIES SWEETHEART are each specialists. PUNTSVILLE likes six furlongs on the main; RICHIES SWEETHEART likes five panels on the grass. PUNTSVILLE did beat RICHIES SWEETHEART going three-quarters on the Arlington polytrack in the Isaac Murphy. But PUNTSVILLE was second and RICHIES SWEETHEART was eighth in a five-furlong turf dash at Indiana Grand. The same inequality held in the Lightning City at Tampa Bay. For PUNTSVILLE to do better at RICHIES SWEETHEART 's speciality is enough for this voter. PUNTSVILLE stepped more out of her comfort zone and gives the S. D. Brilie LP a chance at multiple trophies in this year's Illinois bred ranks. RICHIES SWEETHEART did win an open stakes going five furlongs at Canterbury, and it's worth noting she beat males. DANDY GAL was second to PUNTSVILLE in the Murphy and earned her silver medal finish as a three-year-old.
NN: 1. THE PIZZA MAN 2. CAMMACK 3. COALPORT
For all the reasons discussed in the Older Male section, THE PIZZA MAN gets the call here, too. He faced the meatiest company, and won a Grade 1 over the Woodbine grass. The consistent CAMMACK won six straight starts over the grass, including an Illinois-bred stakes, a salty allowance at Arlington, and a Claiming Crown berth race at Kentucky Downs. COALPORT, laid off for over a year, returned in the summer and built towards a strong fall. He placed in an open stakes at Louisiana Downs, won a tough turf route allowance at Keeneland, and finished the year with a third-place finish in the Tropical Turf Handicap (G3).
PM: 1. THE PIZZA MAN 2. COALPORT 3. CAMMACK
The summertime elder turf male division was Flintshire and everyone else, and Midwest Thoroughbreds' THE PIZZA MAN was among the everyone else when he grabbed his piece of the not-Flintshire graded stakes pie going twelve panels at Woodbine in the G1-CDN Northern Dancer. His turf efforts from the Wise Dan to the River City were enough to make him the best of all males, and easily the best of the lawnmowers. COALPORT beat CAMMACK head-to-head in an October Keeneland allowance and COALPORT also grabbed a graded stakes placing in the G3 Tropical Turf at Gulfstream Park West. After a reclaim by the Ramseys and trainer Mike Maker, he got back on the beam in the summer and fall. CAMMACK did well enough to be tried in the Claiming Crown at Gulfstream Park in the fall and had a consistent year that saw him go from knocking off conditions at Tampa to a Black Tie Affair win at Arlington to getting a fourth in the Claiming Crown Emerald.
NN: 1. LOVELY LOYREE 2. PRADO'S SWEET RIDE 3. RICHIES SWEETHEART
LOVELY LOYREE put together the classiest turf season of any Illinois-bred mare last year. She won an open filly and mare stakes at Indiana Grand, and placed in three more stakes races -- including a pair of graded stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. PRADO'S SWEET RIDE won a filly and mare turf mile stakes at Canterbury, and had a few other strong efforts, including a third-place finish in the Blushing K. D. at Fair Grounds. RICHIES SWEETHEART only finished in the money once, but that start was impressive: she ran males off their feet in the Honor the Hero Stakes at Canterbury.
PM: 1. LOVELY LOYREE 2. PRADO'S SWEET RIDE 3. RICHIES SWEETHEART
Just as for the summertime turf males there was Flintshire and everyone else, there was Tepin and everyone else among the summertime turf females. LOVELY LOYREE got on the podium twice against Tepin at Tampa Bay Downs and won the Indiana General Assembly Distaff on Indiana Derby night. An additional stakes placing came against the statebreds in the Spellman Memorial at Arlington International. Though Stormin Elle beat Feel The Thunder Stable, Oak Rock Racing, LLC, Bojarski, Biondo et al.'s LOVELY LOYREE in state-bred company, it's the open company resume that makes her the queen of this category. Three other Illinois-bred daisycutters won an open stakes as well. PRADO'S SWEET RIDE and RICHIES SWEETHEART each won an open stakes at Canterbury. PRADO'S SWEET RIDE won going long against fellow ladies while RICHIES SWEETHEART did her work in a turf sprint against males. Edge to PRADO'S SWEET RIDE: she also had a third in the Blushing K. D. at Fair Grounds late in the year, and RICHIES SWEETHEART was even beaten in her turf dash specialty by out-of-her division Puntsville. (The other stakes winner, in case you're wondering, was With A Twist, who won a stakes at Turf Paradise.)
Horse of the Year:
NN: THE PIZZA MAN
THE PIZZA MAN only won once in 2016, but that win counted. The gelded son of English Channel won the Northern Dancer (G1) at Woodbine, becoming the only Illinois-bred to win any graded stakes in 2016. THE PIZZA MAN may not have been quite as brilliant at age seven as he was at six, but he continued to hold his own against upper-crust company. He finished third beaten just a length in the River City (G3), fourth beaten a neck in the Stars and Stripes (G3), and fourth beaten only two lengths behind the razor-sharp Erupt in the Canadian International (G1). Even in the Arlington Million (G1), he crossed the wire sixth -- but only a length and a half behind the winner, Mondialiste. In short? Trainer Roger Brueggemann sent his charge to the biggest dances, and he proved he still belonged in the company of top-flight turf horses. Owner/breeder Midwest Thoroughbreds has won this award the last two years with Work All Week and THE PIZZA MAN -- and their star turf horse should repeat as Illinois's top horse this year.
PM: THE PIZZA MAN
There was no rousing victory before the home crowd in the Arlington Million this year, but THE PIZZA MAN was the only Illinois-bred to win a graded race all year. It's easy to cast doubt on a G1 race that in itself is a prep to a G1 race - the Northern Dancer serving as a feeder to the Pattison Canadian International - but no other Illinois-bred won a graded stakes race all year. And THE PIZZA MAN didn't fall off as drastically in form as presumed. He was fourth in the G3 Stars & Stripes, third in the G3 River City, and only beaten a length and a half for all the dough in the Million. It may be he 's the only graded stakes winner around, but no one else tried as many tough spots from February at Gulfstream to summer at Arlington to fall at Woodbine to Thanksgiving weekend at Churchill. It represents a repeat for THE PIZZA MAN, whose campaign this year was less raucous, less glorious, but no less a champion than in 2015. Should he win, it will be four consecutive Illinois Horse of the Year titles for Richard and Karen Papiese - the principals of Midwest Thoroughbreds and their go-to local trainer Roger Brueggemann.
ITBOF logo, courtesy of Illinois Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Foundation. Photographs by Nicolle Neulist.