04/18/2013 4:23PM

Jay Hovdey: Illinois Derby tries to rise above being pointless

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Maryland Jockey Club
War Emblem won the 2002 Illinois Derby, then went on to capture the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Pity the poor Illinois Derby, suddenly racing’s unwanted stepchild, all dressed up in its $750,000 finery on Saturday afternoon with no place to go. Except maybe Pimlico.

Fourteen 3-year-olds have entered the Illinois Derby, to be run at 1 1/8 miles at Hawthorne Race Course, just around the corner from the Bobby Hull Community Ice Rink. Many of the winners have gone on to bigger and better things, at least in terms of Kentucky Derby participation, but this year’s Illinois Derby is destined to be a large and lonely tree falling in an empty forest. At least they’ve got local TV.
The die was cast a year ago when Churchill Downs Inc. officials changed the method by which the Kentucky Derby’s mandatory 20 starting positions would be filled. Out went the graded race earnings and in came a points system that, from some angles, looked a lot like a rounded version of graded-race earnings with fewer zeros.

The impact can not be minimized. Racetracks with a flagship 3-year-old event live and breathe by the recognition derived from its relationship to the Kentucky Derby. Track operators kneel at the altar of the Kentucky Derby, allowing their races to be called so many “preps,” as if unable to stand on their own.

The Illinois Derby used to be a Grade 2 race and is now Grade 3, but for the purposes of pointing a horse for the Kentucky Derby the grading is worthless. The Illinois Derby was left off the list of Kentucky Derby preps, leaving Churchill Downs officials wide open to speculation that the move traced to a local power struggle between Hawthorne and Arlington Park. Churchill Downs Inc. owns Arlington Park.

CDI offered a long list of reasons for the change in Derby eligibility, although the only one that truly made sense was a line tossed off by Churchill Downs media director Darren Rogers to the effect that the new system would at least have people taking about the new system. Score one for Mr. Rogers. In his corporate neighborhood such self-generated buzz is golden.

The racing media has had a gay old time charting the weekly ebb and flow of Derby points, just as they did the money totals of years past. Some writers like the fact that accomplished 2-year-olds from the previous season have been virtually cut out of the process. Others find it admirable that Derby points are reserved for races at a mile or more. Then there are those who praise the revamped system for inspiring an increase in the size of the fields for the various Derby preps.

Except that there was no real problem recently with the size of any of the major 3-year-old races of the early spring, with the exception of the 2010 Wood Memorial’s field of six, when heavily favored Eskendereya would have scared off Pegasus. The last four runnings of the Arkansas Derby have had fields of 10, 11, 13 and 9. The last four of the Santa Anita Derby: 8, 9, 9, 10. Of the Blue Grass Stakes: 14, 13, 12, 9. The Florida Derby: 10, 8, 8, 11. The Louisiana Derby: 14, 13, 12, 13. And the Wood: 10, 8, 9, 6.

If nothing else, the Illinois Derby is a better bargain than its Kentucky cousin. In order to run in the Big One an owner must pay $25,000 to enter and $25,000 to start on top of a nomination fee of either $600 or $6,000, depending on when it was submitted. The Kentucky Derby purse is guaranteed to be $2 million, with $900,000 of that coming directly from fees. The winner gets $1,240,000 plus any fees collected above $900,000. This year that could amount to nearly $400,000. And roses.

By contrast it costs $100 to nominate to the Illinois Derby and $7,500 to run, but that $7,500 is refunded if the horse has been placed in a graded race. This is the definition of trying harder.

The first Illinois Derby was run at Hawthorne in 1923. Sportsman’s Park, located just the other side of the railroad tracks, hosted the Derby from 1924 to 1931, then the race moved to Aurora Downs, out in farm country west of Chicago, from 1932 through 1938.

There was no Illinois Derby from 1939 through 1962. In 1963 it was restored at Sportsman’s Park and remained a staple of the season – with the exception of 1970 and 1971 – until 2002, when Sportsman’s, by then converted to a dual-use motor speedway, was closed.
Before taking up residence as one of the coveted Kentucky Derby preps the Illinois Derby was wedged between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, or shifted to the end of May as sort of a Kentucky Derby consolation prize.

Some very good horses have won the Illinois Derby, no matter when or where it was run. The list must always begin with War Emblem, winner of the 2002 Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Not too far behind is the 2003 winner Ten Most Wanted, who went on to take the Super Derby and the Travers.

Wild Rush, the winner in 1997, won the 1998 Metropolitan Mile. Peaks and Valleys, a Canadian Horse of the Year, won the 1995 Illinois Derby before he took the Molson Million and the Meadowlands Cup. Richman won in Illinois for Bill Mott, Lost Code for Bill Donovan, Smarten for Woody Stephens, Life’s Hope for Laz Barrera, Big Whippendeal for George Steinbrenner.

The horse that joins them on Saturday afternoon must be content to lead a quiet life for a while, at least until Kentucky Derby fever dies down. After that they will be able to enter the arena as the winner of the Illinois Derby, which does sound a whole lot better than winning a prep.