an Illinois horse racing Thanksgiving

It would be a complete delusion to say that everything is coming up roses with respect to horse racing in Illinois, but for the moment, it’s time to set that aside.  There is enough doomsaying in horse racing, both in Illinois and everywhere else.  The fact remains: it would be just as wrong to say there is nothing for which to be thankful.  The year may not be over, but there have been some excellent things happening with Illinois-bred horses on the racetrack.

It’s time to celebrate that.

I am thankful for a trio of Illinois-bred horses who have reminded the rest of the racing world that we do get some good runners from here.

Work All Week started the year as a sharp state-bred sprinter who had yet to be tested in open stakes company, and finished it a heavyweight in Eclipse Award discussions.  This Roger Brueggemann trainee started the year with an allowance win at Oaklawn, and then passed open stakes tests at Oaklawn and Prairie Meadows early in the year.  He returned to Arlington for the Addison Cammack over polytrack — not his best surface — and finished a game second while giving every other horse in the field between eleven and eighteen pounds.  He won his first graded stakes attempt in the Phoenix (GIII) at Keeneland, and then capped off his campaign with a win on the biggest stage for older sprinters in the country: the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Sprint.  That earned this consistent, aptly-named runner a well-deserved break, and he is on the farm for a time before he returns next year at age six.

The Pizza Man has been upper-crust this year.  Unlike his stablemate Work All Week, he had taken some swings in open stakes company before 2014.  He won the dearly departed Robert F. Carey Memorial Handicap at Hawthorne last year, and finished third in last year’s Stars and Stripes Handicap (GIII) at Arlington as well.  He got eight months off after that Carey win, but picked up right where he left off.  He defeated a field of state-bred turfers in the Black Tie Affair, and then returned for his first graded stakes triumph by wiring the Stars and Stripes (GIII).  He then took on the international set in the American St. Leger, bided his time while Big Kick ran ahead early, and staved off defending champion Dandino to take the biggest slice.  His first trip to Woodbine for the Northern Dancer (GI – CAN) was a disappointing fifth, but his return for the Canadian International (GI – CAN) was far better.  He was just nosed out for third by Dynamic Sky, and gamely kept chasing Hillstar and Big Blue Kitten even after being passed.  Tomorrow he races out west for the first time, at Del Mar.  Trainer Roger Brueggemann shipped him out early and gave him a work over the track, and he should be ready to run a good race.

Roger Brueggemann and Midwest Thoroughbreds have not gotten to have all the fun on the national stage this year.  La Tia, trained by Armando de la Cerda and owned by Salvador Hernandez, was probably the most familiar Illinois-bred outside of the state going into this year.  This five-year-old speedster won the 2012 Arlington Oaks (GIII), and took down the La Lorgnette Stakes at Woodbine later that summer.  She did not win another graded stakes at four, but she did keep knocking heads with tough company: she was fifth behind Dank in the Beverly D (GI), and fourth behind Minakshi in the Canadian International (GII – CAN).  At five, she has been better than ever.  She annihilated the Arlington Matron (GIII), and two starts later won the Ontario Matron (GIII – CAN) at Woodbine just as decisively.  Though more proven on polytrack than on turf, she proved she could run with the best in this year’s renewal of the Beverly D (GI) at Arlington: she finished a game fourth, just a length and a half behind Euro Charline.  After a third-place finish in the Canadian International (GII – CAN), she shipped out to Belmont.  She held on by a neck to annex the Athenia (GIII), her first graded stakes win on grass.  She also makes her west coast debut this weekend; Sunday, she races in the Matriarch (GI).

These three have been the highest profile Illinois-bred runners, but they are not the only Illinois-breds for whom I am thankful this year.

I am thankful for C’Mon Feet, and her amazing run.  She ran in a $5,000 N2L claiming race last October, out of which she was claimed into the Ray Tracy barn.  The race proved the ultimate confidence-builder, as it marked the beginning of a six-race win streak.  Her run culminated with a win over Missjeanlouise and multiple graded stakes winner My Option in the Third Chance Handicap this April.  As a fan, it was a thrill to follow along and cheer as she climbed up the ranks…and as a horseplayer, I know she is responsible for some of the nicest tickets I have cashed.  She has not raced since finishing fifth in an open stakes at Prairie Meadows over the summer, but she has shown up on the Hawthorne worktab recently.  Hopefully, she will race at Hawthorne soon.

I am thankful for River Bear, and his durability.  He won his first stakes race at age two, all the way back in 2007.  This year he is nine, and age hardly seems to be slowing him down.  In March, he nailed graded stakes winner Hogy at the wire to win a thrilling allowance at Hawthorne.  It was a perfect prep for April’s Robert S. Molaro Handicap, his ninth career stakes win.  He made his graded stakes debut after that — how many horses try graded company for the first time at age nine?  Though he didn’t handle the Churchill track too well in either of his starts there, he is back in Illinois safe and sound.  He has been on the board in all three starts since, including a win at Fairmount, and fired a sharp work just this morning.  The Lightning Jet Handicap, which he won in 2010, is coming up at Hawthorne on December 6.  If he runs, he should prove formidable.

There is plenty else for which to be thankful in horse racing, in Illinois and beyond; this is a list that could go on all day.  There are always more happy, meaningful, and compelling stories to tell about horse racing, both on the track and off.  We all have our moments, our stories, and our horses for whom we are thankful as fans of this sport.  Still, few things make me happier than being able to enjoy and celebrate the achievements of those tied most closely to my local horse racing circuit.

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