It’s that time of year again: a time for gratitude, turkey dinner, and the Hawthorne Gold Cup.
Once again, Illinois racing had a tough year. Purses were not what they used to be. Field sizes got short at times. Some of the stakes races we knew and loved from the year before disappeared from the schedule: the Showtime Deb, the Sun Power, the Arlington Classic, the Arlington Sprint, just to name a few. We face another year of uncertainty.
Still, so many Illinois-bred horses have given us so many reasons to be thankful this year. This week is a time to be happy about racing in the Land of Lincoln.
Just like last year, Illinois-bred horses continue to hold their own against open company both here and on the road.
The Pizza Man has been on the marquee, and for good reason. He opened his season with a win in the Opening Verse at Churchill, repeated in the Stars and Stripes (GIII), and then took on the world in the Arlington Million (GI). He took on the world, and prevailed — becoming the first Illinois-bred to win the Million. He came a jump shy of beating actual miler (and Keeneland horse-for-the-course) Grand Arch in the Shadwell Turf Mile (GI). Though The Pizza Man was just fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (GI), he still very much belonged in that field, and he has a chance to get one more picture taken this week in the Hollywood Turf Cup (GII). Though Big Blue Kitten will likely nose him out for the Turf Eclipse, The Pizza Man has a lot to be proud of, and should be a shoo-in for Illinois Horse of the Year.
The Pizza Man has not been the only Illinois-bred to make a mark in graded company this year.
Three-year-old filly Prado’s Sweet Ride won the Regret Stakes (GIII) at Churchill in June. That race was her first attempt in graded company. A closer, she also finished a solid third behind lone speed Mizz Money in the Pucker Up Stakes (GIII).
Shogood became the second Illinois-bred in a row to win the Arlington-Washington Futurity (GIII), after Recount did so last year. Shogood won by daylight, and became the first graded stakes winner for sire Nobiz Like Shobiz.
The durable Diva’s Diamond finished second in the Grade I Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn this spring, and then won a pair of open stakes at Prairie Meadows during the summer — including a repeat victory in the Iowa Distaff.
Even Work All Week, last year’s Eclipse Award winner for Champion Sprinter, and last year’s Illinois Horse of the Year, has nothing to be ashamed of. He won the Senator Robert C. Byrd Memorial Stakes at Mountaineer — riding the rail home on a day when the rail could not have been worse. He placed three times in graded stakes races through the year. His career finale was a third behind eventual Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Runhappy in the Phoenix Stakes (GIII). Finishing third in that tough race was even more impressive given that he came out of it with an injury significant enough to warrant his retirement.
Several other Illinois-bred runners made their mark in open stakes company, as well.
After knocking on the door for so long, turf sprinter Richies Sweetheart won two stakes this year: the Brandywine Stakes at Indiana Grand, and the Turf Amazon Handicap at Parx.
In addition to his pair of state-bred stakes wins, Recount also beat open three-year-olds in the Bruce D. Memorial Stakes on Million Day.
America Mon Amie won the Northbound Pride Oaks at Canterbury. Though she missed the board in the Pucker Up by just a neck, she still finished fourth beaten only 3/4 length for all of it in the Pucker Up (GIII).
Former $5,000 claimer Looks to Spare pulled a 74/1 shocker in the West Virginia Governor’s Stakes at Mountaineer, and seeks to spring an even bigger upset this Friday in the Clark Handicap (GI).
Yesterday, Lewys Vaporizer won the inaugural running of the Steel Valley Sprint at Mahoning Valley, turning the tables on the two horses who finished ahead of him in the Perryville Stakes at Keeneland: Hebbronville and Bayerd.
Some of the Hawthorne stakes that used to be Illinois-bred were opened up to be Illinois-preferred. Though several locals who were not bred here entered both the Stickney Handicap and the Cicero Handicap, horses bred here won both. Last year’s Illinois Champion three-year-old filly Lovely Loyree won her first stakes in the Stickney, turning the tables on prep allowance winner Lots o’ Lex. The Cicero ended in a dead heat between a pair of Illinois-bred: Bold Rally and Yankee Dealer.
Two more Illinois-preferred stakes, the Pershing Handicap and the Blackhawk Handicap, will run on the Hawthorne Gold Cup undercard this Saturday. Let’s hope Illinois-breds fare as well in those.
I am grateful not only for Illinois-bred horses, but for Illinois-bred stallions.
Prado’s Sweet Ride became Fort Prado’s first graded stakes winner. She remains his only graded stakes winner, but a few of his progeny also won stakes this year: Bold Rally was one of the dead-heat victors of the Cicero Handicap at Hawthorne, and R Dub won a pair of Colorado-bred juvenile stakes at Arapahoe.
Giant Oak’s first crop turned two this year, and he already has his first stakes winner. Just this Saturday, Giant Cruiser posted a dazzling upset victory against Lousiana-bred juvenile fillies in the Louisiana Jewel Stakes.
Lady Kelia, the upset winner of the Purple Violet Stakes at Hawthorne this spring, is a daughter of Illinois-bred stallion The Bold Bruiser — and also out of an Illinois-bred mare, Lady Above.
The stakes ranks jump out, because it is the most accessible way to prove what Illinois-breds can do to those who may not follow racing day in and day out. However, there are Illinois-breds to appreciate at all different levels of racing.
Be grateful for Silky Sami. Be grateful for her fitting name, a perfect racing reference for a mare who typically rallies from Stickney Village Hall. Despite her deep-closing style, she is a dependable runner: the seven-year-old Illinois-bred mare has hit the board in 40 of her 70 starts, including 17 victories.
Be thankful for Dani Nikki and Nikaluk, a pair of durable seven-year-old Illinois-bred mares. Dani Nikki has 10 wins in 54 starts, including three this year. Nikaluk has 10 wins in 63 starts, including four this year. They keep facing each other on the track, and keep trading victories. They face each other again at Hawthorne tomorrow, and it should be another thriller.
Continuing the theme of durable mares, as well as that of Illinois-breds who can take their shows on the road, seven-year-old With a Twist is still going strong. This Cashel Castle half to Prado’s Sweet Ride has not raced in Illinois since the summer of 2014, but has posted three wins and a second in seven starts out of the state this year. This includes an allowance win at Tampa in the winter, as well as a pair of daylight wins in higher-priced claiming company at Del Mar this summer and fall.
And…Free Fighter. This ten-year-old Illinois-bred gelding won at least once every year from ages two through ten, including three graded stakes along the way, for 12 wins in 77 starts. Those included a dogged win this May at Arlington. By late this summer, after it looked like he had hit the end of his racing career, he was retired through Galloping Out, and has found a new home outside of racing. From being a graded stakes level turf router to being as durable as he was to him finding his way home, there is everything to appreciate about Free Fighter’s career.
This is not everything to be thankful for, even within Illinois horse racing…just a few of the things that have come to my mind. What are you grateful for in Illinois racing, or on your racing circuit? Let me know in the comments, or on Twitter!