If you’re a three-year-old colt there’s only one ticket from Stickney, Illinois, to Louisville, Kentucky. You have to win the Illinois Derby.
The derby used to be held in mid-May as a consolation prize for horses too slow to run at Churchill Downs. In 2001, the next-to-last season at its old track, the now nearly demolished Sportsman’s Park, it was moved up to April to make it a Kentucky Derby prep. Still, no one took it seriously until a low-class local colt named War Emblem won the race in 2002. Uber-trainer Bob Baffert spotted him, got Prince Ahmed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia to buy him, and entered him in the Derby. War Emblem won, at 20 to 1. Now, the Illinois Derby is taken seriously.
Last year’s winner, Sweetnorthernsaint, was the Kentucky Derby favorite. This year Todd Pletcher, one of the top trainers in America, split up his best three-year-olds to give himself two chances at a Derby starter. Any Given Saturday ran in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct (a race once won by Secretariat). Cowtown Cat was sent to Stickney.
Saturday’s crowd at Hawthorne Race Course was the biggest I’ve ever seen there, but I’ll bet three quarters of them couldn’t tell you who won the Illinois Derby. They weren’t there for horse racing. “I wonder if they’re going to be giving away gold today,” said a woman in front of me at the program booth. They weren’t, but as soon as I walked in the door an Abe Lincoln impersonator shook my hand. Off to the left the Bud Girls were posing for pictures with gamblers. And the track was giving away T-shirts, but only in size XL.
“Where did all these people come from?” I asked my gambling buddy, McChump. “They’re here for the camel and ostrich races,” he said. “Everybody complains that not enough people come to the track,” said Jeff, another horseplayer. “Then when too many people come to the track they complain about that.”
The camel races were part of the Derby undercard. Four camels -- with professional jockeys on their backs -- were loaded into a starting gate 300 yards from the finish line. Every fan had been given a ticket with a camel’s number, the winners redeemable for $5. This race was watched with far more interest than any horse race that afternoon. The number three camel, Tasmanian Devil, threw jockey Jose Betancourt. The number four camel, whose name eludes me, took a big early lead, then suddenly veered toward the rail, allowing another camel to win. “I think it was fixed,” groused a woman who had the four. “He was far and away the best.” Before the big race, a tenor sang “My Kind of Town,” a recent tradition that puts the Illinois Derby in the same league as the Kentucky Derby (theme song: “My Old Kentucky Home”) and the Belmont Stakes (“New York, New York”), and way ahead of the Preakness, whose “Maryland, My Maryland” cries “Avenge the patriotic gore that flecked the streets of Baltimore.”
The overwhelming Illinois Derby favorite was Cobalt Blue, who'd come to Hawthorne after winning a stakes race at Santa Anita, in Southern California. Todd Pletcher’s Cowtown Cat was an indifferent 7-2, but right out of the gate he sprinted for the rail, and led all the way around the track. “He walked the dog, didn’t he?” said Mrs. McChump, who moved to Chicago from Dallas to move in with McChump and accompanies him to the track most weekends. “That’s what they say in Texas when you keep the pace slow all the way around the track and lead all the way.”
Look for Cowtown Cat on Derby Day. Don’t look for Cobalt Blue. He ran stiffly on the backstretch and disappeared from contention on the far turn. Bold Start, the horse I bet on, tracked Cowtown Cat all the way and was making a bid for the lead when he bumped into Reporting for Duty, breaking his momentum.
The ostrich races were more exciting than the Illinois Derby, and more honest than the camel races. Two of the ostriches threw their jockeys, but the winner, Pecky Hart (named after Hawthorne’s director of mutuels, Michael P. “Packy” Hart), got the smoothest ride I saw on any animal all day. His jockey leaned back in the saddle, sitting like a harness driver, perfectly in rhythm with his mount’s bobbling gait.
“How’d you do on that race?” I asked Scott "The Professor” McMannis, who teaches a handicapping class before the races. “I had the exacta,” he said, grinning.
Update: Here's a picture of the ostrich race, courtesy of Four Footed Fotos.