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Thursday Thoughts: Illinois Harness Racing Set to Rebound?

by Al Cimaglia

September 7, 2017

Handicapping a race is like figuring out a puzzle. In many ways life is one giant puzzle. I'm not a huge fan of crosswords but trying to connect the dots is something I do find very enjoyable. Last week's "Thursday Thoughts" discussed the possibility of legalized sports betting and the impact it could have on harness racing. This week there's another curious situation which warrants a closer look. 

In 2017, Illinois had only one major standardbred yearling sale. In the recent past there were two, the Land of Lincoln Sale which was basically the Fox Valley Standardbred sale and the Illini Classic Sale. Because there was a lack of interest the last few years Fox Valley Standardbreds cut down on the number of mares they bred. So, on Monday, September 5th the Fox Valley Standardbred yearlings were sold as part of the Illini Classic Sale. A total of 116 babies went to auction and the sale totals were shockingly good. 

If my math is correct the sale brought in $1,055,100 with an average sale price of $9,096. The exact figures haven't been published, but my numbers are close enough to show a significant improvement. Although it's not Tattersalls like, it is a remarkable turnaround from last years' dismal results. 

In the 2016 Illini Classic 83 yearlings were sold for $5,000 or less and in the Land of Lincoln sale 73 yearlings sold for no more than $5,000. In this year's sale, there was a dramatic decline in the least expensive transactions as only 30 babies were sold for $5,000 or less. The total sold this year was 116, which was comparable to the 2016 Land of Lincoln, and about 10% greater than those coming to market in last year's Illini Classic. 

So why the increase in yearling sale prices in an Illinois sale? 

Although it's difficult to say exactly why the robust buying happened it certainly could be the start of an uptick in a state that needs to hear good news. Illinois racing has been broken for at least 15 years, probably longer. Other programs in the Midwest, most notably Indiana and Ohio have jumped ahead of Illinois in the amount of race dates and average purses. But interestingly harness players from all around North America will still bet Illinois harness races more so than Indiana or Ohio. If comparing per race handles Illinois still has larger betting pools even though the purses are significantly better in Indiana and Ohio. 

Maybe the increased interest could be attributed to simply a dead cat bounce. That's what the pessimists will say, this is only a temporary uptick that happened because of a lack of supply or a confluence of favorable conditions for a short-term turnaround.

Then there's the view I would lean towards, the increased spending didn't happen by chance. Maybe it's because finally there is good news coming on help from the Illinois legislature concerning slot machines coming to race tracks. Maybe it also has something to do with the possibility of legalized sports betting being approved in New Jersey by the U.S. Supreme court. For those thinking that can never happen please note the Huston Rockets just sold for $2.2 billion as sports franchise values continue to explode. Slot machines and or legalized sports betting could give a big boost to purses. A case could be made with contraction only the highest quality brood mares were bred. Possibly Hawthorne Race Course applying for 110 harness race dates in 2018 gave horse owners reason to spend. The additional race dates from January 12-March 4 should help local horsemen. 

Take your choice or think of your own reason but there certainly seems to be some optimism in the air in Illinois. Full disclosure, I purchased a piece of two trotters and one pacer, so I literally bought into the concept of a brighter future for Illinois racing. 

The high sale for a trotter on Labor Day was a Pizzazzed colt named Fox Valley Jazzman who will be part of the Mike Brink barn and sold for $47,000. The top tick pacer is a half-brother to Rockin Ron named Holden Steady who was purchased by the proprietor of the Stable.ca-Anthony MacDonald for $32,000. 

On the Night of Champions at Hawthorne in 2016 the largest purse for a 2-year old trotting race was $75,000 and for 2-year old pacers it was $100,000. That said, someone shelled out a pretty penny for a yearling trotter and a Canadian invader came in and bought the most expensive pacer at this year's sale. 

There will be plenty of head scratching and it could take a year or longer until this puzzle is solved, but stayed tuned because Illinois harness racing may have turned the corner. 

Check me out on Twitter for more insights on racing > @AlCimaglia.