Horse racing rounding historic turn

May 31, 2012

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A horse after my own heart, I’ll Have Another is named for his owner’s love of cookies—and not, as one might assume, for too much time spent at the local watering trough. And, it turns out, this sober, sweet-tooth colt is headed into his final turn toward the history books. After against-the-odds wins at the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, I’ll Have Another is preparing to run in the third leg of the elusive Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes next week. It’s been 34 years since horse racing saw a bejeweled sweep—and the racing world looks a lot different nowadays.

I’ll Have Another isn’t the only one strapping on blinders to keep focused on the finish line: Many Illinois lawmakers and industry insiders are hoping a recently passed gambling expansion bill will get Prairie State racing back on track. Despite continued resistance from the governor, the House passed the revised bill by a near-veto-proof margin. Among its provisions, the bill opens the door for slot machines at race tracks. Slots, many industry insiders say, are paramount to the survival of racing in Illinois.

Longtime racing writer John McEvoy says Illinois is keeping itself out of the modern-day racing game by keeping casino culture away from the track.

“Illinois is putting itself on an island by not having casinos,” McEvoy said.

McEvoy spent three decades writing and editing the bible of racing, The Daily Racing Forum. When the publication closed its Chicago office, McEvoy began writing books—about what else, racing. His latest novel, Photo Finish, features the return of protagonist Jack Doyle, a tough, smart aleck, ad-exec-turned-track-rat. The track, McEvoy said, is full of interesting characters like Doyle; he calls it “a great macrocosm of society.”

Characters like jockey Randy Meier who was an active member of the local racing scene for nearly 40 years. He won over 4,000 races; most of them at nearby Hawthorne Race Course where he won more races than anyone in the park’s history—and he’s in Arlington Park’s top 10 too.

Despite breaking some 55 bones over the years, Meier would give anything to be back up on a horse—saddled up in the stall next to his son, Brandon. The father-and-son jockeys got to ride alongside each other for a couple years before a broken neck ultimately took the patriarch out of the running. And while dad was initially reluctant to hand over the family reins, he’s now happy to see—and coach—Brandon to stardom.

As the weather and chances of a Triple-Crown win improve, Afternoon Shift, invited McEvoy and Meier to take a look at the past, present and future of horse racing.

And for those who can't make it out to the track, perhaps there's still hope for an impromptu race at a carousel near you!