Older Illinois Horses Take the Spotlight Saturday at Hawthorne

Saturday is closing day of the all-too-brief Hawthorne spring meet.  After Saturday, the Thoroughbreds migrate north to Arlington, the main track surface at Hawthorne gets swapped out again, and standardbreds take centre stage at 35th and Cicero.

However, closing day features a slate of stakes races for older Illinois-registered horses.  The purse for all three races is $75,000, but that includes $25,000 in Illinois Department of Agriculture money available only to Illinois-breds.  So, that means these are $75,000 stakes for any horses by Illinois-based sires, and tantamount to $50,000 stakes for horses by out-of-state sires who were foaled in Illinois.

The card includes a pair of six-furlong sprints, the Robert S. Molaro for ages four-and-up, and the fillies' complement, the Third Chance Handicap.  The mile and a sixteenth Milwaukee Avenue Handicap is open to Illinois-breds aged three and up; the lower age limit makes sense, as there was no two-turn stakes for three-year-olds at Hawthorne.  There was a fillies' complement in the condition book, The Peach of It Handicap, but it did not draw enough nominations to go.  The Peach of It's loss is the Milwaukee Avenue's gain: a pair of top-quality Illinois-bred mares, Prado's Sweet Ride and Babybluesbdancing, will challenge the boys.

Updated Saturday, April 28 to account for the scratches of BRIAR'S GOLD, RICHIE THE BULL, and D'RAPPER from the Molaro, and of COLOUR GUARD from the Milwaukee Avenue.

Race 3: Third Chance Handicap, Illinois-registered fillies and mares aged four and up, six furlongs on the dirt, post time 4:06pm CST

This race will be run for the 41st time this year, and after last year's stint at six and a half furlongs, it dials back to a flat six just like the Molaro.  It currently takes its name from Third Chance: a 2008 Illinois-bred daughter of Kafwain who won stakes in Illinois from 2008 through 2010.  Trained by Jim DiVito and owned by former ABC7 anchor Ron Magers and insurance broker Robert Marcocchio, Third Chance was a stakes winner all three years she raced.  At age four, she won three: the Governor's Lady Handicap and the Isaac Murphy Handicap against mares, and then the Addison Cammack Handicap against males.  Starting the following year, the Governor's Lady Handicap was renamed for her.

Though the race takes its current name from Third Chance, it seems almost criminal that it never took the name of Darley Dancer.  After all, the durable Play Fellow mare won the Governor's Lady Handicap three times: 1993 through 1995, ages five through seven.  Perhaps the most notable runner in this race ran dead last in 1991: Lady Shirl.  One turn on the dirt was not Lady Shirl's best game -- but she went on to win the Modesty Handicap (G3), the Flower Bowl Invitational (G1), and the E. P. Taylor (G2) later that year.  Lady Shirl also proved her mettle in the breeding shed; she produced Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf winner Perfect Shirl, as well as multiple Grade 1 winner Shakespeare.

This year's edition of the Third Chance Handicap drew a field of just five horses -- but it's a well-matched field, and absolutely anyone can win.  In light of that, the question becomes who is likely to provide the best betting value, and we'll take a shot with MY DARLING SOFIA on top.  She is almost certain to go off the longest shot in the field, barring DANDY GAL's hot-and-cold form raising questions in the minds of the bettors.  MY DARLING SOFIA hasn't raced since November, but has been working regularly for the last month, and should be in condition.  She is also proven off a layoff, as last year, she won first off an even longer break.  This is a bit of a class test for MY DARLING SOFIA, as it's her first time in stakes company, and she faces four Illinois stakes mainstays here.  But?  MY DARLING SOFIA is the sharpest speed in a five-horse field, and that's dangerous.  She has also shown the ability to battle some early and prevail in allowance company, a positive since GO LADY JAY, DANDY GAL, and MY MERTIE can at times show sharp early speed.  None of those three always send, however, so if all three fear a duel, MY DARLING SOFIA could easily be gone.

JOLEE is the second-longest shot on the morning line, though we anticipate after her sharp allowance victory opening weekend, that JOLEE could go off the second choice behind MY MERTIE.  Even so, that allowance race suggests JOLEE has a strong chance here.  Though her off-pace running style isn't usually the greatest in a short field, she faced only five foes in that start, sat off a reasonable pace, and drew off with power.  She stretches out from five and a half furlongs there to six here, another advantage.  Carlos Marquez, with whom JOLEE has done some of her best work, rode that day and returns to the irons here.  JOLEE has always shown talent, and if anyone takes it to MY DARLING SOFIA early, JOLEE will be tough to hold at bay late.

Among the rest?  Likely favourite (and defending champion) MY MERTIE could win, but is perhaps better going six and a half furlongs than a flat six.  DANDY GAL is a solid six-furlong horse, but has been on the shelf since December, and may need one off the lay.  GO LADY JAY, on the other hand, got exactly the tightener she needed when she made her seasonal bow in a five and a half furlong sprint.  She was lucky not to get disqualified, but even so, it was a sharp return, and a modest step forward second off the lay makes her a real contender at a likely fair price.  The stretch to six furlongs should help her, and with five wins and two other money finishes over the course, Hawthorne is clearly GO LADY JAY's favourite place to run.

Selections:

#3 MY DARLING SOFIA (9/2)

#1 JOLEE (4/1)

#2 GO LADY JAY (3/1)

Longshot:  The longshot writer has already flipped to Saturday's Hawthorne 6th, where they are working on clever ways to profit from Bulldog of Bergen's proclivity to take money and then finish second.

Race 4: Milwaukee Avenue Handicap, Illinois-registered, ages three and up, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 4:34pm CST

This year marks the 26th running of the Milwaukee Avenue Handicap, and its first running since 2015.  The race takes its name not from the major artery through Wicker Park, Logan Square, and Jefferson Park, but rather for an Illinois-bred son of T. V. Lark.  A 20-time winner in 79 starts between 1976 and 1980, Milwaukee Avenue won stakes races at Hawthorne, Arlington, and Sportsman's during the course of his career, and finished second behind On the Sly in the 1977 Hawthorne Gold Cup.  Originally run at Sportsman's, the Milwaukee Avenue Handicap moved to Hawthorne in 1999, back to Sportsman's the next year, and has been at Hawthorne for good since 2003.

A pair of graded stakes winners have also won the Milwaukee Avenue.  Millionaire Polar Expedition won the 1997 edition of the race, and in 2004, two-time graded stakes winner Scooter Roach counted it among his victories.  Five horses have won the Milwaukee Avenue twice: Classic Fit (1995, 1996), Chicago Six (2000, 2001), Baker Road (2002, 2003), Wiggins (2006, 2007), and Luv Bandit (2013, 2015). In a strange twist of fate, Luv Bandit is entered to run on Saturday -- the nine-year-old will see the starter in a salty open claimer at Lone Star, not in his home state to try for a third Milwaukee Avenue.

Whoever named GONEGHOST knew what they were doing.  After all, if the grey gets alone on the lead, he's gone.  And, with neither stablemate LITTLE IKE nor the front-favouring RUNNINGFROMTHEFEDS likely to be fast enough to give him a challenge early, the Scott Becker trainee likely gets the trip he needs.  Though GONEGHOST is perhaps better going a sprint distance, he's good enough at a mile and a sixteenth -- undefeated in three tries, and fast enough to oblige as the favourite here.

With the Peach of It not drawing enough nominations, two mares entered to face the boys here.  They both belong, though BABYBLUESBDANCING appeals a bit more here.  She held her own on the dirt this winter at Delta Downs, against open company, and though Delta is a bullring, she has plenty of form at Hawthorne and on other full-size tracks.  Her race record and regular worktab suggest she should be fit for her local return.  Reunited with local regular rider Julio Felix for the first time since a win in the Rolling Meadows Stakes at Arlington last fall, this consistent dirt mare should have enough late to stay on for a piece here.  Still, PRADO'S SWEET RIDE can't be ignored completely.  This is a class drop from the open stakes she has been running in for so much of the past year, even though this will be her first crack against males.  The surface is the question, as she has been better on turf (and even mud) than dry dirt.  There are a few other questions, too: PRADO'S SWEET RIDE has been on the shelf since December, and the Chris Block barn has run a bit cold this Hawthorne meet.  But, she has shown the kind of tactical speed that makes her effective in a short field, comes off a bullet work on April 21, and looked good in the flesh when out for her gallop on Friday morning.

Selections:

#4 GONEGHOST (9/5)

#5 BABYBLUESBDANCING (9/2)

#6 PRADO'S SWEET RIDE (3/1)

Longshot:  What was that about the longshot writer being too busy betting Gary Delong horses?  In Saturday's Hawthorne 6th, why can't Here Comes Kyle gun it out of the gate and take them all the way around?  Bulldog of Bergen and Braden's Position to complete the trifecta, in that order, since Radiant Castle probably needs one.

Race 8: Robert S. Molaro Handicap, Illinois-registered, ages four and up, six furlongs on the dirt, post time 6:26pm CST

Previously named the Chicagoland Handicap, this race was renamed in 2009 to honour Robert S. Molaro, a former Illinois state senator and state representative whose district, when he served, included Hawthorne Racecourse.  Molaro frequently sponsored and advocated for laws friendly for the horse racing industry while in office, and also sponsored an anti-horse-slaughter bill while in office.

Durable fan favourite River Bear won the Molaro three times in non-consecutive years: 2010, 2012, and finally a thrilling half-length victory in 2014 at age nine.  Polar Expedition, a multiple graded stakes winning millionaire who was a Chicago mainstay through the the 1990s, also got his picture taken after this race; he held favoured Prairie School at bay to win the 1995 edition of the Chicagoland Handicap.  From the breeding side, Wild Gambler (1998) stood stud in Illinois from his retirement until he passed away in 2017, and sired several six-figure earners including Gambler Five, Smiling Gambler, and Gambler's Prize.

RECOUNT, now six, has been at the top of the Illinois sprint male division since he was three.  Though Wynn Time, most recently third in the Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G3), may have something to say about that later this year?  They don't lock horns here, so RECOUNT comes in the class of the field.  And, with the defections of RICHIE THE BULL and D'RAPPER?  He's left with two foes, CASHEL ROCK and PRESIDENT ELECT, neither of whom are fast enough to take it to RECOUNT early.  The son of Limehouse very rarely gets an uncontested lead, but he looks likely to get one here.  Though his last outing at Oaklawn wasn't great?  RECOUNT has always been the kind of horse who could rebound quickly from a bad race.  After scratches, he doesn't need to rebound much to take this race, and he looks a strong single.

Among RECOUNT's two foes, CASHEL ROCK appeals more.  He has won his last two outings: an open allowance at Hawthorne last December, and a salty open $40,000 claimer at Keeneland earlier this month.  Versatile enough to run on fast dirt, mud, or grass, his best game is six furlongs on a fast dirt surface, and he has been on the board in six out of nine starts over the Hawthorne main.  CASHEL ROCK is an off-pace sort, but he does not have to drop back to the clouds to make a run, suggesting that he'll at least be close to PRESIDENT ELECT for much of the race -- and may even be ahead of that foe, because even though PRESIDENT ELECT has showed some early speed at turns, he has more recently been dropping well off the pace.  Combine that pace-compromised running style with the fact that CASHEL ROCK is on the whole faster, and CASHEL ROCK seems likely to chase home second behind RECOUNT.

Selections:

#5 RECOUNT (6/5)

#2 CASHEL ROCK (6/1)

#4 PRESIDENT ELECT (1o/1)

Longshot: With a three-horse field, the longshot writer has wandered down to the coffee shop to stock up for Derby Week.

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