Illinois Derby State of Mind

Illinois Derby State of Mind
Photo: Heidi E. Carpenter

I have fallen in love with Texas since I moved here in November, but there are 3 things that I miss from Chicago. In no particular order, they are Portillo’s, Giordano’s and this time of year for Chicagoland racing. While I can have the first two things shipped to me and I can watch simulcast, nothing beats getting to the track. After a long, cold winter most of my friends would be looking forward to warmth, sun and the beach. I, on the other hand, would be anticipating the Illinois Derby in Cicero, followed by a summer at Arlington Park.

With the drawing of the field for this weekend’s Illinois Derby, I think back to some of my favorite childhood moments growing up in the Chicago racing circuit. Sure, Hawthorne and Sportsman's Park will never win an award for glitz and glamour, but they both hold a sentimental place in my heart. They are the horseman’s home.

The Illinois Derby has experienced quite a turbulent history in recent decades. It was originally run between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, but was moved up on the calendar in 2001 to become a prep race for the Kentucky Derby. Outside of Illinois it never gained the national spotlight that races such as the Wood Memorial or Santa Anita Derby enjoy. In my mind, it didn’t need to in order to be special. As an Illinois owner, my Dad dreamed of winning the Illinois Derby. As a child, this was my “Disney World”, the ultimate experience! Unfortunately, those dreams never came to fruition, yet, year after year, I would be by his side as the bell would sound on a thrilling race.

The only Illinois Derby winner to achieve Kentucky Derby victory was War Emblem in 2002. The day he wired the field, and surprised Jerry Bailey and Repent, would be the last time I would get to Sportsman's. It was a joyous and fitting farewell to that part of my childhood. Over the years I would enjoy many spectacular Illinois Derbys. In 1995, there was the thrilling finish of Peaks and Valley edging out Da Hoss. Moving forward to 2004, there was the exciting victory of Pollard’s Vision, who was blind in his right eye. The race I most wish I could remember but was only 2 at the time was Lost Code’s victory in 1987. He is a horse with special meaning to me as he was our main sire and one of my all-time favorites. I did a post on him a while back and I would love to hear any stories you may have of him.


The race has taken some hits in the last few years. In 2011, it was downgraded to a Grade III, and in 2013 it was ignored by the new Derby Points System. Some observers thought it would become  a prep for the Preakness, but neither Departing and Dynamic Impact had success at Pimlico. At the end of the day, none of that matters to me. It does not need to be a Grade II or a prep race for anything, it just needs to be the Illinois Derby. It will always hold a special place in my heart as I am sure there are other horsemen out there who will agree; often overlooked and overshadowed but forever a part of who I am.

As for this year’s race, it does not disappoint. It is a competitive field of 9 from all across the country. Call me crazy, but I will be rooting for hometown Lewy’s Vaporizer to run away from the field. Sometimes there is nothing wrong with going with your heart. Now if I only had an Italian Beef to enjoy, as I watch the race…

Meet Jason Wood

I was born with an endless love for horses and racing. My dad owned several horses, so my favorite memories are either at the track or in the barn. I always tell my friends that I could read a racing program before I knew the alphabet! The Illinois racing circuit was home for many years. The majestic weeping willows along the backstretch of Arlington soon gave way to the warm winter nights under the lights at Sam Houston. I spent some time in Maryland and now find myself back at Sam Houston Race Park! Just like a stakes winner, I seem to always be shipping somewhere new!

My dad has passed on to the big track in the sky, but this sport allows me to carry a piece of him with me every time I walk around the track. I feel like I am a winner every time I get to be a part of racing, even if my pick doesn’t leave the starting gate!

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