Hawthorne Racecourse (12/29/10)
Contact: Ron Uchman
It seemed fitting to end the meet, and the year, with an interview with a trainer who is Illinois-based, trains for many Illinois-based owners, comes from a family that has been very successful in the Illinois horse-breeding program, and has had a phenomenal year with Illinois breds that he trains.
Introducing Chris Block.
From what I can gather, Mr. Block did something in November that had never before been accomplished…he won Graded stakes races on subsequent days with Illinois-bred runners.
We spoke the week before Christmas and discussed a variety of things but mostly Giant Oak, Dundalk Dust, Table Games (the horse) and pending legislation.
“I’m very proud of the fact that both horses (Giant Oak and Dundalk Dust) were born and raised in the State of Illinois. They are headquartered here, at Illinois racetracks, and they are owned by Illinois owners. I’m a big advocate for the Illinois breeding program. I was born here, grew up here, and lived my whole life here so it makes me quite proud that both horses did as well as they did.
“There was quite a bit of build up on Giant Oak during his two-year-old season. There were a lot of expectations by a lot of people. Many thought he was a Kentucky Derby horse. I wasn’t convinced of that. I was a bit more cautious. After all, he was only two going on three. I knew he was going to get better with age. That has been a pattern with his family. I, for one, didn’t want to see him go down that road, to get pushed too hard early, to get labeled as a Derby horse, and have it backfire on us; to ruin what might be a better career down the road. So, should we have tried the Derby. I’m sure a lot of people thought so. But, I have no regrets.
“I’ve always been an observer of the Derby and I’ve seen many horses that I thought could have had solid careers get ruined going down that road. Unless I thought that Giant Oak was taking major steps toward that, I was going to stay away. Musket Man soundly defeated him in the Illinois Derby and I didn’t think, at that time, that Musket Man was one of the top three or four Derby contenders. I just didn’t think we were ready to turn the corner against that type of competition just yet.
“Instead we kept him on grass. We went for the Mid America Triple at Arlington. We got our hopes up after the Arlington Classic. We thought we had a real chance to sweep the Triple. But, he kind of let up down in the American Derby and the Secretariat with no apparent excuse. That pushed us back to the dirt which, obviously, has turned out to be his better surface. He’s had some good efforts against some of the better horses in the country. He’s gotten more seasoned and with age, he’s become a wiser horse. He’s been kind of a kid in an adult’s body. That started to change in the middle of this year. He still plays a game when he’s making his run down the stretch, where he wants to just draft up along another horse. That’s what happened in the Clark with Successful Dan.
”I’m hoping that the prudence with which we handled him as a three-year-old, where we really didn’t over race him, will pay dividends as we go forward. I wouldn’t be afraid to try turf with him again in the future but, right now, I think that you are looking at a horse that is better on the dirt; specifically the Churchill Downs surface. I think that he has a real affinity for that surface. He’s in Ocala now; kind of on a working vacation. We have kept him in light training and have given him some time out in the paddock during the day. He’ll be heading to Gulfstream after Christmas and if he handles the surface in preparation, we might try him in the Grade I Donn, which is February 5. But, with the way he likes Churchill, our plans with him should revolve around their meets.
“I couldn’t be more proud of what Dundalk Dust has accomplished in the short period of time. She’s been successful on all three surfaces but I was really anxious to get her back on dirt. I was preparing her last fall for The Pat Whitworth Debutante and saw quite a bit of promise on the dirt but she ended up with a minor ankle issue which really precluded me from running her in that race. We had to take a step back and make sure we did right by her. When we got her going at Arlington this summer, and we kind of pushed her along because she seems to be the kind of filly that can handle anything, she won an allowance race there, and then jumped right into the fire with her when she ran in the Arlington Oaks. She held her own and ran a gallant third, considering she had only one race in six months under her belt. She came back and ran solid in the next allowance condition, which I thought warranted taking a shot with her in the Pucker Up.
“That race was oddly run with Danny Miller’s horse (Dade Babe) getting way out in front. Dundalk Dust did make a late run, she got up for fourth, but I was really anxious at that point to get her to Hawthorne to prepare her for the Illini Princess because of what I had seen with her on the dirt. That worked out really well. She came in there and validated what I was hoping she would do.
“My original thought was to run her in the Mrs. Revere at Churchill against straight 3-year-old fillies but, in my mind I was thinking that I wanted to keep her on dirt so I nominated her to the Cardinal, thinking that if it didn’t come up overly tough and hoping that we would take a chance and try to get her some Grade 2 stakes placing. It came up with a good field but not over the top. Then the rains came. I decided to run her anyway. I didn’t know how she would handle it but I thought that she’s the kind of filly that, when you ask her to do something, she does the best she can. That’s what she did. The kick back she was getting early in the race bothered her a bit but she fought through it and really extended her stride through the turn and down the stretch. Those are her big attributes; her size, her stride, and her determination. What she accomplished this year is pretty remarkable for a filly with so few races.
“She’s also in Ocala. We’re not really sure where we’ll send her but she’s getting a little longer rest than Giant Oak.
“I didn’t think that Table Games (Jim Edgar Futurity winner) would accomplish anywhere close to what he has accomplished this fall. He really surprised me. We gelded him soon after we got him. He wasn’t a tough horse to be around but he just needed a little more focusing. I think gelding him helped him quite a bit. He never showed me the ability to think that he would be a solid sprinter so we decided that we would try him around two turns. We tried him on turf the first time, trying to evaluate both turf ability and the ability to navigate two turns. He made a very good run down the lane. He was nominated to the Edgar and we wanted to try him two turns on the dirt. He ran a very professional race when he broke his maiden. He didn’t let anything bother him in that win which I thought was very encouraging.
“Going into the Edgar, I actually felt quite confident that the horse would run quite well. I wasn’t wild about running on an off track like we ended up with but he showed a lot of determination and dug down deep and got up in the last couple of jumps. I couldn’t be more proud of a horse. That’s the kind of effort that I really admire. He had so much adversity coming into the stretch of that race and he was able to run down horses that had much better trips. I thought it was pretty impressive.
“There were a lot of negotiations between the horsemen and the racetracks. We worked out a deal that we thought was fair for both sides. All the sides finally came together, Thoroughbred horsemen, Harness horsemen, and the tracks. That’s been a problem in the past. We were never on the same page. This time we came to an agreement as an industry. We held together until the Senate passed their version and we’re still hanging together waiting for the House in January. That is something that needs to be recognized. We hung in there together and worked this thing out.
“Purses drive this industry. If this bill passes, there is going to be a remarkable increase in purses. That will aid the breeding industry in a really positive way. I think that you’ll see breedings pick up in a dramatic way, maybe not in the initial stages, but soon after the machines get up and running and people see what the increase in purses will be. I think you will see a whole turn-around of the industry, as far as the number of foals being produced. I believe it will improve dramatically. There will be more breeders’ awards being paid out. The bigger purses will be a bigger incentive. I can foresee a lot of people that have taken a step back from breeding stepping back forward.”
Hawthorne Race Course is in its 101st year of racing under Carey family ownership. Hawthorne offers the only traditional dirt track for thoroughbred racing in Northern Illinois. Live racing at Hawthorne runs Wednesday – Saturday through December 31. Post time daily is 1:35 pm. Club Hawthorne membership is free and available at Guest Services at Hawthorne Race Course. For more information, visit www.Hawthorneracecourse.com.