Illinois-bred champions: my thoughts

The Eclipse awards may be over, but the time to select the Illinois-bred award winners for 2014 is nigh.  These questions more than occasionally crossed my mind over the last several months, particularly as the racing year drew to a close.  As fun as the Eclipse awards are, the Illinois awards are even more fun, because they cover the horses who race nearby day in and day out, and relate to races I have attended in person.

My own selections involve a few close calls, a few write-in candidates, and a few runaway winners.  Several of the closer calls involved a horse who had one big win but less in the way of supporting performances, compared to a runner who had a bit more consistency.  For the most part, I prefer to give the nod to a horse who has some consistency and repeat performances, when compared with one who had a big win but was unable to reproduce it.

When this piece was originally published, I framed it as my hypothetical votes, since I was under the impression that I was not a voter in the Illinois Champions poll.  However, I am now a voter.  As write-in votes are allowed, these are the votes I submitted.  My logic and my rankings have not been altered.

If you are curious about other perspectives on the Illinois end-of-year awards,  Brian Zipse shared his thoughts at Zipse at the Track, and Paul Mazur published his at Picks and Ponderings.  Both Brian and Paul also vote in the poll, and they are both well-informed followers of Illinois horse racing.

With that out of the way, it is time to take a whirlwind tour through 2014 in Illinois racing.

Two-Year-Old Male

Selections:  Recount, Dom the Bomb, Giantstepsbdancing

The top two selections were straightforward, as only two Illinois-bred two-year-old males won stakes races in 2014.  Recount gets the top nod in my eye because of his accomplishments against open company.  He won the Arlington-Washington Futurity (GIII) in a blanket finish over Private Prospect and One Go All Go, and was also third behind Private Prospect and Iroquois Stakes (GIII) winner Lucky Player in the Prairie Meadows Juvenile Mile.  Dom the Bomb had two convincing stakes wins, but both were against state-bred company: the Sun Power and the Jim Edgar Illinois Futurity, both at Hawthorne.  In his only open-company attempt at age two, he faded to fourth in an allowance at Keeneland.  The choice for third was difficult between Armando’s Star and Giantstepsbdancing.  Both graduated against Illinois-bred maiden special weight company at Hawthorne, and both finished second in Illinois-bred stakes behind Dom the Bomb.  Giantstepsbdancing showed toughness to hold on to second in the Jim Edgar, and also has shown versatility.  He came from a stalking spot in his maiden win, and was the pacesetter in the Edgar.  Armando’s Star is is a decent speed horse, but did not show another dimension at two.  Advantage, Giantstepsbdancing.

Two-Year-Old Female

Selections: Timeaday, Tizgorgeous, Prado’s Sweet Ride

Timeaday and Tizgorgeous split the Illinois-bred stakes races: Timeaday took the Showtime Deb, with Tizgorgeous prevailing in the Pat Whitworth Illinois Debutante.  Timeaday prevailed by daylight over Tizgorgeous in that Showtime Deb.  Though Timeaday was not nominated for the Pat Whitworth, she returned against open N1X company later in the Hawthorne meet, and prevailed.  She also broke her maiden against open company at Fairmount.  Her only loss on the year was in an open N1X against males, in which she still finished third.  Tizgorgeous racked up two victories in seven starts at age two, with a victory in a state-bred maiden special weight at Arlington to go with her stakes win.  She missed the board in three starts against open company, though two of those starts were ambitious spots at Keeneland and Churchill.

The only other two-year-olds on the official ballot were Razamajazil and Rock My Dreams.  Both are stakes-placed against Illinois-breds, but Prado’s Sweet Ride graduated against open company at Arlington second out, and then took her show on the road to win a one-mile turf allowance at Keeneland — a race in which Tizgorgeous finished fourth.  That record makes a strong argument for a write-in vote for Prado’s Sweet Ride here.

Three-Year-Old Male

Selections: I Got It All, Afortable, Urban Cool

I Got It All was aptly named: he indeed got all of the three-year-old state-bred stakes, sweeping both the Land of Lincoln and the Springfield.  He topped that with a win against open company in the Straight Line Stakes at Arlington, and then beat Dubai-bound Cool Cowboy and graded stakes-placed Bump Start in an allowance at Keeneland.  He finished the season third in the Lightning Jet Handicap, a state-bred stakes race, and his first attempt against older.  As the only Illinois-bred three-year-old male to win a stakes race this year, I Got It All should win this in a runaway.  Afortable did not win a stakes race this year, but finished a late-running third behind victorious lone speed Istanford in the Arlington Classic (GIII).  He won a three-year-old N1X at Keeneland in April, and beat older in an Illinois-bred N2X at Arlington that included the streaking Coco Mon and the multiple graded stakes placed Fear the Kitten.  Urban Cool started off the year strong, beating older in an Illinois-bred allowance at Hawthorne in his three-year-old debut.  He struggled at Arlington through the summer, but beat open N1X company at Hawthorne in October.  Two starts later, he turned up in the Aventura Handicap, a three-year-old stakes race at Gulfstream Park.  As a 30/1 long shot, Urban Cool finished third behind prominent horse-for-that-course Atreides.  The allowance wins combined with the open stakes placing give him the nod for third over Prado U, who ran on nicely for second against state-breds in the Springfield Stakes, and hit the board in a handful of allowances against older, but did not win a race all year.

Three-Year-Old Female

Selections:  Lovely Loyree, Richies Sweetheart, Brazyn Appeal

This division was a muddled one.  No three-year-old Illinois-bred filly won an open stakes race this year, and neither of the ones who did win one (Pistols Drawn or Countess Cashmere) made much noise outside of their state-bred stakes wins this year.  Pistols Drawn had a better racing resume between the two stakes winners, with a state-bred allowance victory against older in March, but there were three runners who could stake better claims.

Lovely Loyree was the only Illinois-bred three-year-old to score an open stakes placing this year, finishing third behind Kiss Moon and Maria Maria in the second division of the Hatoof Stakes at Arlington.  She also finished third against older state-breds in the Illini Princess Handicap at Hawthorne in November.  Three of her four wins this year were against state-breds, but she also won an allowance at Hawthorne against older open-company fillies and mares by daylight.  In the balance, she put together the best season among state-bred three-year-old fillies.  Richies Sweetheart was the most perplexing omission on the official ballot.  A write-in for her seems necessary by any measure, and it would not baffle me to see someone write her in for first.  She placed second behind Countess Cashmere in the Purple Violet Stakes, which was a bit long for her.  Richies Sweetheart did her best work in sprints: four of her five wins came at between five and five and a half furlongs, with her fifth at six and a half furlongs.  She won on polytrack, turf, and dirt.  Four of those five wins were in races not restricted to Illinois-breds.  This summer she set a blistering track record for about five furlongs over the Arlington turf, and followed that win up by shipping to Saratoga and winning a five and a half furlong N1X over their grass.  She danced a lot of dances, and one could reasonably argue that the only reason Richies Sweetheart is not yet a stakes winner is that there is no Illinois-bred stakes that caters to her best kind of race: turf sprints.  Finally, Brazyn Appeal has not won a stakes yet, but she was the only runner to hit the board in both the Pretty Jenny and the Purple Violet.  In twelve starts last year, Brazyn Appeal won three times, and hit the board on eight occasions.  She won three times, including an open N1X victory at Hawthorne against older.  Between her pair of stakes placings and her consistency, she stands out enough for third in this division.

The ballot was later updated to include Richies Sweetheart in this category, since she placed in the Purple Violet.  She remains my #2 vote for three-year-old female.

Older Male

Selections:  Work All Week, The Pizza Man, Suntracer

There were a lot of solid candidates in this division, runners for whom legitimate (or at least interesting) arguments could be made in most years.  Coalport won a state-bred stakes, and was twice placed in open stakes.  Amen Kitten hit the board in the Grade II Mac Diarmida in 2014.  Administer finished third in the Lost in the Fog Stakes, an open sprint affair at Golden Gate.  Genuine Lover won an open stakes, the Parker Speed Stakes, at Wyoming Downs.  Sweet Luca repeated in the Addison Cammack, and River Bear won his third Robert S. Molaro.

2014 was not most years.  In 2014, three Illinois-bred older males won graded stakes races.

Work All Week started the year in an allowance at Oaklawn, and ended it with a win in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (GI).  He was the only Illinois-bred male to win a race at the highest level this year.  In addition to that he also won the Phoenix Stakes (GIII) at Keeneland, and two other open stakes.  He kept his career record perfect on dirt, with the only blemish on his year being a second-place finish behind Sweet Luca in the Addison Cammack.  Not only was he on a suboptimal surface for him, but he also had to drag a sled.  He climbed the class ladder with aplomb, and beat some of the best sprinters in the country on the biggest stage.  The Pizza Man, Work All Week’s stablemate in the Roger Brueggemann barn (and fellow Midwest Throughbreds homebred), also had a breakout year.  He started his year with a win against Illinois-bred turf routers in the Black Tie Affair Handicap, followed it up with his first graded stakes win in the Stars and Stripes (GIII) on Arlington Million Preview Day, and then held off last year’s winner Dandino to win the American St. Leger on Million Day.  He finished off the board in two Grade I races in Canada, but finished a solid third behind multiple graded stakes winner Finnegans Wake in the Hollywood Turf Cup (GII) to close out his year.  It still appears that The Pizza Man makes more consistent deliveries on the homefront, but he proved himself against classier competition than ever before.  Suntracer, so many times the bridesmaid since winning the 2012 Robert F. Carey, looked to be continuing that path this year.  He finished a head second behind War Dancer in the Louisville Handicap (GIII), and then finished a late-running third behind The Pizza Man in the Stars and Stripes.  He did not fire in the American St. Leger, but he finally broke through in the Kentucky Turf Cup (GIII) in September.  He got to the front with a last-to-first run, and gamely held off a charging Pyrite Mountain to win by a nose.

Older Female

Selections: La Tia, Lion D N A, Diva’s Diamond

La Tia could not be a clearer top selection here.  She won four times in eight starts through 2014, all of which were in graded stakes.  Those four graded wins all came at different tracks: the Arlington Matron (GIII) at Arlington Park, the Ontario Matron (GIII – CAN) at Woodbine, the Athenia (GIII) at Belmont, and then the Matriarch (GI) at Del Mar.  Her only off-the-board finish was a game fourth in quite possibly the most loaded filly and mare turf race on American soil all year: the Beverly D (GI).  This was La Tia’s breakout year, and this was the year when La Tia proved that she is just as good on the grass as she is on polytrack.  Lion D N A never raced in Illinois during 2014, but won three listed sprint stakes out east: the Interborough and the Correction at Aqueduct, and then the Skipat at Pimlico.  She faltered in her last two starts and has been off the track since July, but three open stakes wins on the year make her stand out.  The third slot was a close question between Diva’s Diamond and My Option.  My Option won the Chicago Handicap (GIII) and finished third in the state-bred Third Chance Handicap at Hawthorne as well as the listed Mari Hulman George at Indiana Grand.  Diva’s Diamond won the Peach of It Handicap against state-breds at Hawthorne in the spring, but also splashed through the mud to win the Iowa Distaff Handicap against open fillies and mares at Prairie Meadows.  She also finished second in the She’s All In Handicap at Remington later in the year.  Diva’s Diamond also had two allowance wins during the year, one at Hawthorne and one at Remington.  My Option faced tougher company through the year,  but she also finished the year with just a single win to her name.  Since one of Diva’s Diamond’s four wins on the year did come in an open stakes, she makes the third-place slot in a photo.

Two older females deserve an honourable mention: though not quite doing enough to finish in the top three, what they did on the track should be recognised.  One is Bushy’s Pirate, who races in Mexico.  Though she was winless in twelve starts, she hit the board six times, including three times in stakes.  One of those was a third-place finish in the Handicap de las Estrellas (GI).  Though it would be doubtful that such form would translate to graded stakes in the United States, seeing an Illinois-bred running at the highest level in another country merits a mention.  The other is Sydneyrella.  She placed second behind Diva’s Diamond in the Peach of It Handicap, but was as consistent an allowance-level runner as one could want.  In thirteen starts in 2014, Sydneyrella won six times, with three seconds.  She turned in sharp performances on dirt, polytrack, and turf, at distances between a mile and a mile and a sixteenth.  She did not beat the kind of company that would win her this award, but racing fans should appreciate and laud her honesty.

Sprint Male

Selections:  Work All Week, River Bear, Luv Bandit

In this division, it’s Work All Week first and the rest nowhere.  He deservedly won the Eclipse Award for Champion Male Sprinter, and though Palace or Private Zone may have had an argument for that award, neither of those horses was bred in Illinois.  This is an easy a top selection as La Tia was in the female turf division.

Below Work All Week, things get a bit thorny.  Work All Week was the only Illinois-bred male sprinter to make a dent on the national stage, and there was no dominant state-bred male sprinter on the local circuit.  Sweet Luca beat the heavily encumbered Work All Week in the Addison Cammack, but flopped badly in the Lightning Jet and did most of his better racing going two turns.  I Got It All suffers the same problem that Goldencents did in the Eclipse Award debate in the Sprint Male division: though he won the Land of Lincoln going six panels, he did his best work as a miler.  River Bear, on the other hand, is a sprinter, period.  He charged in late to nail graded stakes winner Hogy in an allowance at Hawthorne to begin the year, and then mowed down Four Left Feet and Sacred Gift in the Molaro later in the spring.  He faltered twice against much tougher company at Churchill, but came back later in the year.  The second half of his season was not quite as strong as his first, but he did tick off another win in a handicap at Fairmount, a third-place finish in a classy allowance at Hawthorne (behind the open stakes-placed Helooksthepart and Lightning Jet winner Luv Bandit), and then a perfectly creditable fourth after a bad start in the Lightning Jet.  River Bear’s season was as solid as one could ask from anyone, not to mention a nine-year-old.  For the last slot, Luv Bandit and Sweet Luca contend closely.  Both have done most of their work going longer distances.  However, both won state-bred stakes this year.  Sweet Luca has been the only horse in the last two years to land his nose on the wire in front of Work All Week, again nailing him in the Addison Cammack.  However, synthetic is not Work All Week’s premier surface, and Sweet Luca carried a feather-light 119 pounds as compared to Work All Week’s 130 pound impost.  Sweet Luca returned to sprinting in the Lightning Jet, but could only fire well enough for ninth.  Luv Bandit had been typically going longer, but finished second behind Helooksthepart in an allowance first off the lay.  That was good enough for his connections to try him short one more time in the Lightning Jet, and he nailed 93/1 shot Hope for Today to win by a neck.  Third and fourth behind those two were some serious horses: I Got It All and River Bear.  Just this past weekend, Helooksthepart franked the form of that allowance race in which Luv Bandit was second (and River Bear third) by finishing second in the open Pelican Stakes at Tampa Bay.  As such, Luv Bandit’s sprinting resume on the year looks a bit stronger than Sweet Luca’s.

Sprint Female

Selections:  Lion D N A, My Option, C’Mon Feet

The top two selections in this division are pretty straightforward.  Lion D N A gets the nod on top, having annexed three open stakes wins at sprint distances through the first half of the year.  My Option won the seven-furlong Chicago Handicap (GIII) at Arlington, and also placed third in a blanket finish behind C’Mon Feet and Missjeanlouise in the state-bred Third Chance Handicap.  She was also a wide fifth (two lengths beaten) in the Presque Isle Masters (GII), and a hard-trying sixth (beaten 2 1/4 lengths) in the Hendrie (GIII) at Woodbine.  She ran both routes and sprints through the year, but did her better work on the year going short.  Behind these two, it’s a long way back to C’Mon Feet, winner of the Third Chance Handicap in the spring.  The first half of her season was sharp: she was in the midst of a six-race win streak, scoring in two six-furlong starter optional claiming events before gutting out a victory over Missjeanlouise and My Option in the Third Chance.  She snapped that win streak with a fifth-place finish in the open Prairie Rose Stakes at Prairie Meadows, and then went on the shelf for six months.  Though she finished off the board in two starts back from that lay, her early-season form combined with who she beat in the Third Chance suffices for third place in the division.

Turf Male

Selections: The Pizza Man, Suntracer, Coalport

Two Illinois-bred males, The Pizza Man and Suntracer, won graded stakes going over the grass, and had campaigns that would make them serious candidates in this category in just about any year.  Suntracer danced a few more dances (eight races to The Pizza Man’s six), with his only ungraded race being the American St. Leger.  Still, The Pizza Man had three stakes wins to Suntracer’s one, and finished ahead of Suntracer all three times they raced against each other: in the Stars and Stripes (GIII), the American St. Leger, and the Canadian International (GI – CAN).  Behind them, it is tight for third between two graded stakes placed runners (Afortable and Amen Kitten), and a state-bred stakes winner who was twice placed in open stakes (Coalport).  Coalport gets the slight nod due to his more consistent season.  He did not race until July of last year, and his debut off that seven and a half month lay way a dull fourth in the Mystic Lake Mile.  He was a well-beaten second next out in the listed West Virginia House of Delegates Speaker’s Cup, but that was washed from turf to dirt.  He crossed the wire first in the Unbridled Stakes at Louisiana Downs (though was disqualified for drifting out), won an allowance at Keeneland over the likes of Bad Debt, Margano, and R. Great Adventure, and then scored a late-running neck victory in the Buck’s Boy.  Amen Kitten was an allowance winner and second in the Mac Diarmida (GII), but with only three races on the year, Coalport still did a bit more.  Afortable, also graded stakes placed in the Arlington Classic (GIII), danced some bigger three-year-old dances but finished off the board in all three of his other stakes attempts.

Turf Female

Selections: La Tia, Alette, Kepi

La Tia was again an easy choice here.  She was the only Illinois bred to win an open stakes over grass — and she won two, the Athenia (GIII) at Belmont and the Matriarch (GI) at Del Mar.  Combine this with a third in the Canadian Stakes (GII – CAN) and a fourth-place finish beaten just a length and a half in the Beverly D. (GI), and La Tia should win this convincingly.  Alette won her first career stakes race in November, running on late to nail Kepi in the Illini Princess Handicap.  In her only other stakes appearance on the grass she finished tenth in the Modesty (GIII) — but was still only beaten three lengths by I’m Already Sexy.  Add to that a half-length win in a nine-furlong open N2X allowance optional claiming race at Arlington in May, and Alette marked herself best of the rest on the grass.  Both I O Ireland and Kepi were also in that bunched finish in the Modesty: I O Ireland was sixth beaten a length, and Kepi checked in seventh beaten a length and a half.  Neither won a stakes on turf this year, though Kepi won the Lincoln Heritage, which was washed from the turf to the poly due to torrential downpours.  I O Ireland did place in an open stakes, finishing second in her division of the Kentucky Downs Ladies Marathon.  Still, Kepi beat I O Ireland on the square in a one-mile turf AOC at Arlington in June, and then beat her again — finishing second behind Alette, to I O Ireland’s fifth — in the Illini Princess at Hawthorne in November.

Horse of the Year

Selection:  Work All Week

This is a two-horse race between the two Illinois-breds who won Grade I races: Work All Week and La Tia.  Both of these horses were multiple graded stakes winners, and both of these horses had consistent years against classy company.  When all is said and done, only one can get the vote.  Both Work All Week and La Tia appeared in quite possibly the toughest race in their division on the year: Work All Week in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (GI), and La Tia in the Beverly D (GI).  Work All Week got his picture taken.  La Tia held on valiantly after setting the early pace, but ended up fourth.  She beat some nice horses in her Grade I win, the Matriarch, but beating the likes of Discreet Marq and Strathnaver does not quite compare to Work All Week dispatching with the likes of Secret Circle, Private Zone, and Palace.

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