The Battle for Spring Horse Racing

On June 14, Churchill Downs Incorporated announced a radical change to Kentucky Derby qualification. Gone from its signature race was the graded stakes criterion, where the potential runners were evaluated based on money earned in graded races. In its place was a tiered points system, with an emphasis on winter/early spring races, races beyond a mile, and around two turns.

(Click here for a larger view of the chart.)

Criticism was quick to come from all corners including, this one. One notable omission was the Grade 3, $500,000 Illinois Derby. According to blogger D. Simon (who provides the chart above):

“There have been just as many winners of the Illinois Derby (0 points to the winner) that have gone on to wear the roses as there have been winners of the Tampa Bay Derby (50 points to the winner) and UAE Derby (100 points to the winner). War Emblem won the Illinois Derby in 2002; Street Sense captured the Tampa Bay Derby in 2007; and no Derby winner has ever won — or even competed — in the UAE Derby.”

Another criticism was the additional unneeded complexity. Money earned was simple to understand. More money equaled better footing. Also, a race at the $500K level was a de facto win-and-in qualifier to the Kentucky Derby. Same with any race whose purse exceeded a half a million, like the $1M Wood Memorial in April. Now, we have a point system that necessitates a quick reference chart.

Of course, the Illinois Derby and the complexity are not the only gripes lodged against the system. This is a blog about (mostly) Chicago thoroughbred racing, and as such we’ll stick to the issues surrounding Hawthorne and its Derby Prep, the Illinois Derby.

Hawthorne Race Course’s cross town rival is Arlington Park. The two may not race simultaneously, but there’s a bit of competition between the two tracks. After all, they both seek your recreation dollar. And add in that the parent company of Arlington is Churchill Downs Incorporated (CDI). It’s not that much of a stretch to conclude that CDI, on behalf of AP, made a sharp self-motivated shot at Hawthorne when assigning zero points to the Illinois Derby.

“To penalize Hawthorne for having the Illinois Derby just because they’re in a dates war with Churchill was really low.”  

–Jay Privman, DRF columnist and “Thoroughbred Los Angeles” radio host.

It’s also not the first time that Hawthorne and Arlington have gone to battle. In Fall 2011, CDI/AP floated a plan to the Illinois Racing Board (IRB) that would have radically changed the traditional Hawthorne Spring-Arlington-Hawthorne Fall Illinois racing calendar. Under this plan, the Hawthorne Spring meet would be shuttered and the IRB would shift the revenue generated from it and accompanying out-of-state simulcasts to Arlington. Arlington argued, according to the 2011 Illinois Annual Illinois Racing Board Report, that the roughly 50-50 split of live racing dates does not account for more money wagered at Arlington than at Hawthorne (by a 55-45 margin of all sources, and by a five-to-two ratio of on-track handle). The plan was defeated last Fall, with Hawthorne’s 2012 Spring meet (one that showed year-to-year increases in a number of areas) spared the axe.

But this time around when race dates for 2013 are assigned in late Summer 2012, Hawthorne Race Course may not have the sizzle in its marquee race, the Illinois Derby, to trumpet the meet.

And with that, Hawthorne has been forced to “put up or shut up” with the Illinois Derby. Just as in 2011, Hawthorne has been put on the defensive.  And what about the Illinois Derby? According to Hawthorne Race Course Assistant General Manager Jim Miller,

“Currently we are discussing plans in regards to the Illinois Derby. We were shocked to see the race was not included in the Road to the Kentucky Derby points system. We have approached Churchill Downs with a request that they reconsider. In regards to the race, we currently have no plans to reduce the purse or to move the race. It is a historic race for Illinois and we expect it will remain that way for many years to come.”

It’s hard to stomach the idea of Arlington/CDI and Hawthorne are going to war just as Arlington closes and Hawthorne opens for the fall. Imagine the Pucker Up at Arlington or the Hawthorne Gold Cup being run in the backdrop of tense board meetings to assign dates, with the knowledge that the races and dates of the future sit on shaky ground. Yeesh. Worse, we had a preview of the teeth-gnashing with the Arlington Park/Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemans’ Association spat at the start of the Arlington meet. The AP/ITHA spat, while resolved, did put local simulcasts and local off-track wagers of Kentucky Derby week in jeopardy.

But unfortunately, the calendar plan from last year, the AP/ITHA spat from this past spring and now the CDI points system show that another round of war looms for control of springtime Illinois racing. The next battle looks to be in September 2012 when 2013 dates are assigned.

Be prepared. But let’s also hope the Illinois Derby isn’t a casualty of war.


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  • This makes CD look so incredibly petty. It certainly makes you wonder whether the powers that be really want to keep horse racing a viable sport. Unfortunately it has soured me on attending any of the AP races.

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