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Why Illinois Derby Winner Can't Go to Kentucky

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Pity poor Joe Vann. If the 3-year-old colt had been foaled a year earlier, he might have run in the Kentucky Derby. Until this year, that was the usual next step for winners of the Illinois Derby.

    Joe Vann won Saturday’s Illinois Derby at Hawthorne Race Course, following the traditional singing of “My Kind of Town.” But unlike past local champions, he won’t be headed to Louisville next month. That’s because Hawthorne cut the purse for the Illinois Derby from $500,000 to $300,000 this year. Horses qualify for one of the 20 spots in the Churchill Downs starting gate based on earnings in graded stakes races. Since winners receive 60 percent of the purse, Joe Vann earned $167,000 on Saturday. That puts him in 26th place among 3 year olds.

    If the Illinois Derby still paid 500 grand, Joe Vann would have won $300,000, putting him in 13th place, good enough to run in the Kentucky Derby. But Hawthorne can no longer afford to hand out purses that size, because the bill to allow slot machines in Illinois racetracks died in the General Assembly last year. As a result, Chicago racing is now officially bush league.

    Chicago was never a top-rank circuit, on the level of New York, California, Florida or Kentucky. But it was always just a notch below. In 2002, War Emblem won the last Illinois Derby run at now-demolished Sportsman’s Park, then went on to win the Kentucky Derby, and the Preakness. Secretariat, Cigar and Dr. Fager all ran historic races at Arlington Park, which still holds the richest turf race in America. The Arlington Million is a prep race for the Breeders Cup. Although that, too, could change if the legislature doesn’t step in to help horse racing. The race could become the Arlington Half-Million. Or the Arlington Half-Dollar.

    State Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, reintroduced his slots bill this year. It has already passed a House committee, although it’s too late for Joe Vann, and too late for some of the racetracks’ human competitors too. As the Tribune reported earlier this month"

    Jesse and Joel Campbell, 33, jockeys and twin brothers whose father is president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, opted to race out of state this summer. Jesse will be in Toronto, while Joel will be in Iowa.

    “Nobody wants to do this,” said their father, Mike. “But we’ve gotten desperate enough and frustrated enough to make these hard choices. This is not a profitable place to race anymore.”