Harness racing will be featured at the Illinois State Fairgrounds for 10 days of non-betting weekend action funded by the Hawthorne purse account.
by Neil Milbert
The decision by corporate owner Churchill Downs Inc. to terminate racing at historic and palatial Arlington International Racecourse not only has had a devastating impact on Illinois thoroughbred racing it also has crippled harness racing in the state.
Trying to make the best of a bad situation, with the support of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association (IHHA) and the Illinois Department of Agriculture, Hawthorne Racecourse is bookending its upcoming pari-mutuel harness meeting with 10 days of non-betting weekend racing at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield, about 175 miles to the south.
Hawthorne will dip into its purse account to provide the primary source of funding for the Friday and Saturday afternoon races at Springfield on June 17, 18, 24 and 25, Sept. 16, 17, 23, 24 and 30 and Oct. 1.
The second and last of this year’s two harness meetings under the lights at Hawthorne will be held from June 30-Sept. 11.
The top drivers and trainers at the first meeting from Feb. 3-March 20 are coming for the four days at Springfield that will preface the return of the pacers and trotters to Hawthorne, the only pari-mutuel harness track in Illinois with an extended meeting and the lone thoroughbred track in the Chicago metropolitan area.
Under a time-sharing arrangement mutually approved by the IHHA and the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (ITHA), the thoroughbreds began their first Hawthorne meeting on April 2 and it will run through June 25. Their second meeting is scheduled from Sept. 23-Dec. 31.
Harness horsemen also will have late summer pari-mutuel opportunities conducted under the auspices of the Department of Agriculture at the State Fairs — Aug. 11, 12, 13, 17 and 18 at Springfield and Aug. 26 and 27 at DuQuoin.
“We’ve added a Thursday (Aug. 11) this year,” said Tim Norman, the department’s Bureau Chief of County Fairs and Horse Racing.
That will be one of four dates at Springfield and DuQuoin when there is no racing at Hawthorne.
When the sister harness tracks, Maywood Park and Balmoral Park, were forced out of business after their 2015 meetings (as a consequence of the Illinois Racing Board approving a 2016 schedule jointly submitted by unlikely allies Arlington and Hawthorne) Hawthorne synchronized its standardbred schedule with the thoroughbred meetings at Arlington, conducting racing from May through September.
But in 2019 — the same year the Illinois legislature legalized casino gambling at racetracks — Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI) bought a 62 per cent interest in Rivers Casino. It is the biggest money-maker of the state’s 10 casinos and is located less than 10 miles from Arlington, described by Architectural Digest as “the world’s most beautiful racetrack.”
The acquisition made Arlington expendable. CDI obviously didn’t want its own racino competing with its cash cow in Illinois so the parent corporation put the property up for sale with the stipulation that the new owner refrain from conducting racing.
A deal with the Chicago Bears is pending and the NFL team is expected to tear down the track and replace it with a state-of-the-art football stadium.
Hawthorne, meanwhile, is in the process of renovating its clubhouse and grandstand in order to become a racino that would help fund purses but the project is going painfully slow and — instead of being completed this year as originally planned — it won’t open until next year or conceivably later.
In view of the circumstances, horsemen regard the additional racing opportunities at the Springfield Fairgrounds this month and in September and October as a godsend.
“When we were negotiating the season because of Hawthorne being the only facility and us sharing it with the thoroughbreds this was an idea that came up,” said IHHA executive director Tony Somone. “It gives us an extra 10 days of racing.
“Logistically, it’s not easy to pull off. Hawthorne has to rent the place and basically run the meetings.”
Heading the VIP list of drivers are Casey Leonard and Kyle Wilfong.
Leonard’s six-year reign as the Hawthorne champion came to an end at the winter/spring meeting when he finished second to the perennial runnerup Wilfong. This time Wilfong won 54 of the 234 races in which he drove and Leonard had 49 winners in 243 outings.
Casey’s father, Terry Leonard, won his fourth trainer title in five years, and Kyle’s fiancé, Nicole Agosti, tied for fourth.
In the forefront of the Leonard contingent is Fox Valley Gemini, a winner of a championship race on Hawthorne’s Night of Champions — the main event in Illinois racing — for five straight years. The 7-year-old gelding owned by Jim Ballinger will be competing in the fifth race on opening day at Springfield, a one-mile open pace for Illinois conceived and foaled open pacers that has a purse of $8,500.
The Leonard stable is based at Terry’s farm in northern Illinois, while Kyle’s father, Brett Wilfong has moved his racing headquarters from Illinois to a farm near Harrah’s Hoosier Park.
“We’re sending a trailer-load of horses to race at Springfield,” Brett said. “If we can have three, four, five of them race in one day it makes it reasonable with gas prices being what they are. We’re taking horses that we think can be first, second or third.
“All three of us — myself, Nicole and Kyle — are going to work together to make it happen there and at Hawthorne. Kyle has had a very successful meeting at Hoosier so far and we have a few racing there. We’ve done a little racing in Kentucky — we haven’t done that well there but we haven’t taken our better horses there.”
Like Kyle Wilfong, Casey Leonard has been competing at Hoosier and he welcomes the slightly shorter trip to Springfield (about 190 miles versus 225) and the significantly shorter trip to Hawthorne (about 75 miles).
“It has been a grind driving up and down the road to Hoosier,” Leonard said. “It’s tough on my help and tough on the horses.
“What happened with Arlington combined with inflation has been a perfect storm that has hurt people and negatively affected their pocketbooks. I think (Hawthorne’s Assistant General Manager) John Walsh has done as good a job as could be done in accommodating both breeds.”
The possibility of rainstorms at Springfield and DuQuoin during the mini-meetings is a major worry for horsemen because the tracks can’t cope as well as Hawthorne.
“At Springfield our biggest fear is the weather and on top of that you have the two State Fairs,” Leonard said. “If we get rained out more than two times it would really screw up our schedules. It’s already a tight schedule for the 2-year-olds and the 3-year-olds aren’t getting as many opportunities as they did before. This is so much different than anything we’ve had to deal with.”
BLACK DRIVERS KEY TO RACING’S SUCCESS
Racing at the 27 Illinois county fairs that began June 3 and will continue through Sept. 7 has taken on added importance.
For many years a contingent of black drivers and trainers, most of whom are from Mississippi, has played an integral role on the fair circuit.
“Quite frankly those Mississippi guys kept us on the map when there was no state money available in 2015, 2016 and 2017 and things were going badly,” Norman said.
Last June 19, Hawthorne paid tribute to the contributions made by black drivers by holding a Juneteenth Celebration race in which 10 of them competed. The race was won by Todd’s Party, a 4-year-old gelding driven by his trainer, Jamaica Patton. Mayor Virgin, with Terry Skinner at the reins, came in second and Coach Loman, driven by Archie Buford was third. The other drivers were Freddie Patton Jr., Jordan Patton, Cornelius Cavett, Cordarius Stewart, Jamaal Denson, Marcus Stewart, Terry Skinner and Hosea Williams (a member of the IHHA board of directors).
(Juneteenth commemorates the date in 1865 when federal troops arrived to take control of Texas — the last U.S. state in which slavery was practiced — and free the Black men and women still held in bondage two years after the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee that ended the Civil War).
Now, the torch has been passed to Springfield and a Juneteenth race featuring all Black drivers will be held Saturday.
“We have close to 40 trainers (based a Springfield),” Norman said. “That’s more trainers than we’ve had in a long time. There are more horses, too. Herman Wheeler (a Black trainer from Louisiana) has come for the first time in a long time.
“Jamaica Patton is the trainer with the most horses. He has about 30 head.”
Jamaica is a 40-year-old native of Clinton, MS, who began driving at fairs in his home state as a teenager. He came to Illinois to drive and train when he was in his early 20s and never left.
During the summer time he is a man in motion.
“I go to most of the county fairs and I do some racing at Hawthorne,” he said. “At least 15 of my horses are Illinois-breds. I also try to do The Red Mile, Oak Grove and Hoosier Park and I have one horse I plan to go to a few Ohio fairs with.
“I have some horses I take to the fairs to get experience but some others I have just for the fairs. Some of my owners like to go to the fairs and see their horses race.
“Being here in Springfield (for races this month) is great. I wish there was more racing here so I wouldn’t have to do so much driving. I’m living in Illinois and my main thing is to support the program. The best year I ever had was 2020. Last year I held my own but it wasn’t a great season.”
Jamaica’s 58-year-old uncle, Freddie Patton, Jr., has thrived on the fair circuit and, like Jamaica, he has had success in major Illinois-bred pari-mutuel races, most notably in 2016 with Princess Sage, a horse he co-owned (with breeder Keli Jo Bell), trained and drove. With Freddie at the reins, Princess Sage won the Incredible Tillie for 2-year-old filly pacers on Hawthorne’s Night of Champions and went on to be crowned 2016 Illinois Harness Horse of the Year.
Freddie has about 65 horses in his stable and uses DuQuoin (approximately 155 miles south of Springfield and 325 miles south of Hawthorne) as his Illinois training base. His trainer/driver sons, Cornelius Cavett and Jordan Patton, also are there.
After the Illinois season winds up in the fall, Freddie, goes back to his Mississippi farm to train and race his horses in non-betting outings.
Roshun Trigg is another decorated member of the Mississippi brigade who has been returning home to the region around Jackson for the winter for many years before heading north to race at the Illinois fairs and Hawthorne and earlier at Balmoral and Maywood. The 45-year-old has taken training titles at the county fairs and at DuQuoin and in 2017 his colt Louscipher reigned as Illinois male Trotter of the Year.
While Black trainers and drivers are few and far between in most harness racing jurisdictions in the U.S. and Canada, they are flourishing in Illinois. Not only have they won innumerable races they have won great respect across a wide spectrum in the state’s standardbred community.
“These are good, good people,” said Leon Walker, a white trainer expressing the consensus. “They’re quality guys. I’m always rooting for them.
“They love their work and they work day and night. They’re up in the morning training their horses at the (Springfield) Fairgrounds and they come up to Hawthorne and race at night.
“In this business we need people like them.”