Two Phil’s Provides Huge Boost To Struggling Illinois Horse Racing Industry

Written By Dave Briggs on May 17, 2023
Mage defeating Two Phil's in the 2023 Kentucky Derby

Jim Miller, the director of racing at Hawthorne Race Course in Chicago, attempted to remain neutral. However, as Two Phil’s, an Illinois-based racehorse, rounded the final turn at Churchill Downs with just a stretch of dirt separating him from winning the Kentucky Derby on May 6, Miller couldn’t contain his excitement and began jumping in front of the television.

Eventually, Two Phil’s was defeated by Mage by a single length. Just after the race concluded, Larry Rivelli, Two Phil’s trainer, sent a text message to Miller. The message contained an all-caps, four-letter swear word and the phrase “so close.”

However, finishing as runner-up in the Derby and securing a $600,000 prize, thus propelling Two Phil’s career earnings over $1.2 million, was already a substantial win for the ailing Illinois horse racing industry.

Miller expressed profound appreciation for Two Phil’s performance in the Derby, saying, “It means a ton.” He pointed to the significant changes in the Illinois racing industry over the past 20 years, noting the decrease from five racetracks to just one, Hawthorne, in upstate Illinois. Miller reminded that the last Illinois horse, War Emblem, won both the Illinois Derby and the prestigious Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2002. The subsequent and most recent locally-connected horse to perform well was Recapture The Glory in 2008, who clinched the Illinois Derby and secured fifth place in the Kentucky Derby under Louie Roussel.

Derby runner-up is based at Hawthorne

Two Phil’s, owned by Illinoisans and conditioned by Rivelli, a third-generation Chicago horseman, gave the Illinois horse racing industry a reason to celebrate while they anticipate the long-delayed arrival of a casino at Hawthorne. The establishment is based at Hawthorne.

“Miller said, ‘The Chicago media did embrace the fact that we had the hometown guy and connections, and that the horse stables at Hawthorne.'”

“It’s beneficial to gain recognition and it’s also something that you acknowledge as, ‘This individual selected our racetrack for training not only because it’s his home base, but due to his preference for how the horse trains on that track and its surface. It’s safe and an ideal place to prepare and get fit.’ And that’s an honor for us at Hawthorne.”

No Preakness for Two Phil’s

Rivelli, an established top trainer in Illinois with 70 horses at Hawthorne, decided against entering Two Phil’s into the Triple Crown’s second leg — the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore this Saturday.

Miller stated that even if Two Phil’s had won the Derby and remained in the Triple Crown contention, Rivelli was still likely to not enter the horse in the Preakness because of the short, two-week turnaround time.

“Mille relayed Larry’s comments after the race, in which he saw a silver lining in finishing second because it reduced the pressure to decline participating in the Preakness. Larry even suggested that he likely would have opted out of the Preakness regardless. Mille emphasized, ‘There’s a lot of pressure.'”

Greater glory may await for Illinois’ top Thoroughbred

Miller stated that Rivelli hasn’t ruled out the possibility of the third leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, which will take place on June 10.

Miller stated that Rivelli is considering The Belmont, but he is known for prioritizing the readiness of the racehorse, letting it dictate the timing of participation. Miller also pointed out the increasing number of races held throughout the year, giving them more options and lessening the need to rush. He mentioned several notable races such as the Travers, Haskell, West Virginia Derby, and the million-dollar races at Parx for 3-year-olds.

“He stated that if things go according to plan, you have the prospect of the Breeders’ Cup Classic as a reward, provided you can cover the mile and a quarter distance. So if things fall into place – taking into account the horse’s health and having a strategy in place – this would be the ultimate goal.”

The Breeders’ Cup Classic is set to take place at Santa Anita in California on Nov. 4.

Where you can bet on the Preakness in Illinois

There are numerous options for betting on the Preakness in Illinois, including the newly accessible FanDuel Racing app, which is legally permitted for use in the state.

You can also bet:

  • On the Track: Two live racetracks are situated in Illinois — Hawthorne Race Course and FanDuel Sportsbook and Horse Racing near St. Louis. Both offer on-site betting windows.
  • Several legal online racebooks such as TVG, Club Hawthorne, NYRA Bets, TwinSpires, and XpressBet gladly take bets from gamblers in Illinois online.
  • Off-Track Betting, abbreviated as OTBs, refers to betting parlors that are found in various cities across Illinois.

Miller stated that Hawthorne is intentionally not hosting its own live card this Saturday to concentrate attention on the Preakness.

Miller stated, “Reservations are accepted at all of our locations, including Hawthorne and all of our off-track betting locations. We also offer the option to place early bird wagers a day in advance to save you time. In addition to betting, our off-track betting locations are partnered with restaurants, providing an opportunity to enjoy a meal and drinks while watching the races. We’ve been notably busy, especially during the Derby, and we anticipate a similar crowd for the Preakness.”

Two Phil’s has quickly become a Chicago star

Miller said that Two Phil’s has become a local star due to being based at Hawthorne.

Miller stated, “In this era of social media, it’s the small things that matter. For instance, when I posted a video of [Two Phil’s] boarding the van on Twitter, it quickly garnered thousands of views. This isn’t a horse that finished 14th in the Derby, rather he came in second. As a result, people are now interested in his training schedule. They enjoy watching him jog on the racetrack. Interestingly, he is usually one of the last horses to leave the racetrack every day.”

“One day, all he did was jog a mile with the pony, then gallop a mile around the racetrack. People crowded the back fence just to watch him, acknowledging ‘This is a good, legitimate racehorse.’ It’s impressive to witness such moments. It brings a certain amount of recognition to Hawthorne. We accept that we’re not Arlington Park, we’re aware of that. We embrace our identity. The fact that he chooses to train, stable and probably race here definitely boosts our reputation as he plans out the rest of the year.”

Hawthorne has been taking advantage of the spotlight

Hawthorne has benefited from the publicity.

At the culmination of 2021, Arlington Park was shut down by Churchill Downs Incorporated. The following year, towards its end, the property was purchased by the Chicago Bears. The team has plans to construct a new stadium at this location.

The closure of Arlington left Hawthorne as the solitary racetrack in Chicago. Since then, Hawthorne has been striving to maintain both Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing in Chicago. Currently, the two breeds are sharing the track.

“Miller said, “We’re attempting to determine the most effective racing schedule. It’s challenging because we’re dealing with two breeds.”

Betting up 30% at Hawthorne

Still, there have been some encouraging indications.

“Derby had a record turnout,” Miller stated. “This shows that people are actively participating and betting on horse racing. I believe this is somewhat connected to sports betting. During the pandemic, horse racing resumed in Illinois before other major sports. Consequently, many bettors began to engage in horse racing and have remained active participants.”

“Our live meet’s handle has increased by approximately 30%, which is really positive.”

Miller mentioned that Hawthorne is observing some spillover from Illinois sports betting to horse betting.

“Individuals are placing bets on sports, particularly the NFL,” said Miller. “Considering a three-hour football game, they can manage to bet on four, five, or even six races within that duration. That’s definitely advantageous. Furthermore, the legalization of sports wagering has certainly been beneficial,” he added.

Hawthorne is currently in partnership with PointsBet, however, this may alter later in the year. Over the weekend, it was announced by Fanatics that they plan to acquire PointsBet’s US operations for a sum of $150 million.

Miller said, “Regardless of whether Hawthorne’s sportsbook partner continues to be PointsBet or is taken over by another group, I am confident that the sports betting industry in Illinois is financially robust enough to adapt. I have no major concerns in this regard. I am particularly pleased that we have managed to successfully integrate sports betting and horse racing.”

Photo by Jeff Roberson / AP Photo
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Dave Briggs

Dave Briggs currently holds the position of managing editor and writer at Catena Media, specializing in the North American gambling industry. His particular areas of expertise include the casino, sports betting, horse racing, and poker sectors. He is presently covering the gaming industries in Illinois and Canada.

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