By Bob Kieckhefer
The Illinois Racing Board Tuesday Jan. 29 approved a sizable increase in the purse for this year's Illinois Derby (gr. III) at Hawthorne Race Course and a renewal of the $400,000 American St. Leger started last year at Arlington Park.
Horsemen supported the Hawthorne proposal but opposed continuation of the Arlington race.
The April 20 Illinois Derby will be run for $750,000, up from last year's $500,000. Hawthorne said the hike is a response to the decision by Churchill Downs to exclude the Illinois Derby from its list of races offering qualifying points for entry into the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
"We felt it was imperative that we do something," Hawthorne president Tim Carey said. "We feel horses that might not have made the cut for the (Kentucky) Derby could be looking forward to the Preakness or Belmont (both gr. I)."
Mike Campbell, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, spoke in favor of the increase but warned Illinois racetracks need to find a way to increase overnight purse levels or face "real trouble somewhere in the future."
The Arlington plan generated more controversy and a bit of irony.
Arlington argued the American St. Leger has great potential and helps generate foreign interest in the graded stakes featured in the International Festival of Racing. The Illinois THA contended the race, for several reasons, isn't worth the drain on the purse account.
Last year's inaugural running of the American St. Leger, at 1 11/16 miles on the grass, went to veteran international campaigner Jakkalberry. But the runner-up was Ioya Bigtime, a local horse trained by Chris Block for his family.
Block, also vice president of the Illinois THA, found himself on both sides of the issue.
"From a family point of view," Block said, "I like the race. My family made $80,000 on it last year." But he noted: "As a member of the ITHA, I have to respond to the members of my board."
Despite the horsemen's objections, the Arlington stakes schedule was approved on a vote of 5-3. The Hawthorne schedule was approved unanimously.
The IRB also noted the Illinois General Assembly has not yet acted to renew authorization of advance deposit wagering by Illinois residents. IRB chairman William Berry said ADW remains illegal in the state until further action by lawmakers.
He also hinted at potential sanctions against ADW operators who continued to take bets from Illinois account holders after being notified of the legal situation. He did not specify what action he will seek, saying only he "would like to level the playing field for those who were able to comply."
IRB member Kathy Byrne asked if that meant there will be "consequences" for those who violated the law.
"Yes," Berry replied.
"I was very disturbed" by failure to comply, Byrne said.
All ADW operators now have frozen wagering by Illinois-resident account holders.