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 tried to be impartial, but as Illinois-based Two Phil’s roared out of the final turn at Churchill Downs with nothing but dirt between him and victory in the May 6 Kentucky Derby, the director of racing at Chicago-area Hawthorne Race Course found himself jumping up and down in front of the TV.

In the end, Two Phil’s lost to Mage by one length. Seconds after the race was over, Two Phil’s trainer, Larry Rivelli, texted Miller a four-letter expletive in all caps along with the words “so close.”

Yet, finishing second in the Derby — and collecting a $600,000 payday to boot to push Two Phil’s career earnings over $1.2 million — was already a significant victory for the struggling Illinois horse racing industry.

“It means a ton,” Miller said of Two Phil’s performance in the Derby. “Look at the Illinois racing industry in the last 20 years in upstate Illinois. We’ve gone from five racetracks down to one [Hawthorne]. That’s a big difference. And you have to go back to 2002 to find [Illinois horse] War Emblem winning the Illinois Derby and taking the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Then, after that, really the last somewhat local horse to run well is Recapture The Glory in 2008, who won the Illinois Derby and finished fifth in the Kentucky Derby for Louie Roussel.”

Derby runner-up is based at Hawthorne

That Two Phil’s is owned by Illinoisans, based at Hawthorne and conditioned by Rivelli, a third-generation Chicago horseman, gave the Illinois horse racing industry something to cheer for as they wait for a much-delayed casino to come to Hawthorne.

“To have the hometown guy, the hometown connections and the fact that the horse stables at Hawthorne… the Chicago media did embrace it,” Miller said.

“It’s good to have the notoriety and it’s also one of those things that you say, ‘This guy chose our racetrack to train at not only because it’s his home base, but because he really likes how the horse trains over that track and the surface and it’s safe and it’s something that you can really get fit over and get ready.’ And that’s a feather in our cap to at Hawthorne.”

No Preakness for Two Phil’s

Rivelli, a long-time leading trainer in Illinois that has 70 horses based at Hawthorne, chose not to enter Two Phil’s in the second leg of the Triple Crown — this Saturday’s Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

Even if Two Phil’s had won the Derby and had remained in contention for the Triple Crown, Miller said Rivelli was leaning heavily toward not entering the horse in the Preakness due to the two-week turnaround time.

“Larry said coming out of the race that the one silver lining for running second is there wasn’t as much pressure to say no to the Preakness,” Mille said. “He said he most likely would not have run in the Preakness anyway. There’s a lot of pressure.”

Greater glory may await for Illinois’ top Thoroughbred

But Miller said Rivelli isn’t ruling out the third leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes on June 10.

“The Belmont is definitely under consideration, but [Rivelli is] one of those that is really good about saying, ‘the racehorse will tell me when it’s time to go,’” Miller said. “And the other thing that you see now is there are so many other races throughout the course of the year. Of course, there’s the Travers, and there’s the Haskell. There’s the West Virginia Derby. You have million-dollar races at Parx for 3-year-olds. You have all these different options now where you don’t have to rush anymore.

“And the one thing that he did say is if things do work out, right, you do get that carrot dangling in front of you of the Breeders’ Cup Classic knowing you can make the mile and a quarter. So, if things work out the right way — and of course that comes down to the health of the racehorse and mapping out a plan — but that would be an ultimate goal at the end.”

The Breeders’ Cup Classic will be held on Nov. 4 at Santa Anita in California.

Where you can bet on the Preakness in Illinois

Around Illinois, there are plenty of ways to bet on the Preakness, including the new FanDuel Racing app that is legal to use in Illinois.

You can also bet:

  • At the Track: Illinois is home to two live racetracks — Hawthorne Race Course and FanDuel Sportsbook and Horse Racing near St. Louis. All have betting windows on-site.
  • Online: Several legal online racebooks — TVGClub HawthorneNYRA BetsTwinSpires and XpressBet — happily accept wagers from bettors in Illinois.
  • OTBs: That’s an acronym for off-track betting and these parlors are in several Illinois cities.

Miller said Hawthorne is purposely not holding its own live card on Saturday to focus attention on the Preakness.

“We do take reservations at all of our locations, not only at Hawthorne, but at all our off-track betting locations,” Miller said. “You can place early bird wagers the day before. So, if you don’t want to spend the afternoon, you can get your wagers in early. Then just from a comfort standpoint, at all our OTB (off-track betting) locations, we have joint venture partners that are restaurants. So, if you want to come and spend an afternoon, grab a meal, grab drinks and watch the races you can do that too. We are definitely busy. We were very busy for the Derby and I expect we’ll be busy for the Preakness, as well.”

Two Phil’s has quickly become a Chicago star

Being based at Hawthorne has made Two Phil’s a local star, Miller said.

“It’s the little things in the age of social media,” Miller said. “I put a video up of [Two Phil’s] walking onto the van on Twitter and all of a sudden there’s 1000s of views. This is a horse that didn’t go out to the Derby and run 14th,  he ran second. And because of that, now people want to know when he’s going to work. They want to just see him jog on the racetrack. He’s one of the last horses out on the racetrack each and every day.

“There was one day when all he did was go out there and jog a mile with the pony and then gallop a mile around the racetrack and there were people lined along the back fence just to watch him saying, ‘This is a good, legitimate racehorse.’ That is the kind of stuff that’s very cool to see. And you do bring a little bit of notoriety to Hawthorne. We’re not Arlington Park, we get that, we know that. We are who we are. But it’s one of those things where it definitely does help having this be the place that he chooses to train and stable and probably race out of there as he maps out the course for the remainder of the year.”

Hawthorne has been taking advantage of the spotlight

The publicity has been good for Hawthorne.

Churchill Downs Incorporated closed Arlington Park at the end of 2021. In late 2022, CDI sold the property to the Chicago Bears. The team is hoping to build a new stadium on the site.

Arlington’s closure left Hawthorne as the lone racetrack in Chicago. Ever since, Hawthorne has been struggling to keep not only Thoroughbred racing alive in Chicago, but Standardbred racing, as well. The two breeds now share the track.

“We’re trying to figure out what’s the schedule that works best for racing,” Miller said. “It’s hard because you’re trying to take care of two breeds.”

Betting up 30% at Hawthorne

Yet, there have been some promising signs.

“There was record handle for the Derby,” Miller said. “So, people are coming out and watching and wagering on horse racing, and that’s something that I think actually does tie in a little bit to sports betting, because when you go back to the pandemic, horse racing returned to Illinois before major sports returned to Illinois. So, because of that, a lot of bettors started playing the races and they stuck around and have continued to play the races.

“We’re up about 30% in the handle for our live meet which is really good.”

Miller said Hawthorne is also seeing some cross-over from Illinois sports betting to horse betting.

“You’re seeing guys that are sitting there betting sports, especially the NFL,” Miller said. “You’ve got a three-hour football game. They can get in wagers on four, five or six races in that time and they are, so that’s the good thing. And I’ll tell you having sports wagering and having it legalized definitely helps.”

Hawthorne is partnered with PointsBet, but that may change later this year. On the weekend, Fanatics announced they intend to purchase PointsBet’s US operations for $150 million.

“If [Hawthorne’s sportsbook partner] remains PointsBet, or if it turns into another group that takes over PointsBet, whatever it is, there’s more than enough money in the sports wagering realm in Illinois to work its way around,” Miller said. “I have no real concerns from there, but I do like the fact that we have been able to incorporate sports wagering and horse racing together and it has been successful.”

Photo by Jeff Roberson / AP Photo
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Dave Briggs

Dave Briggs is a managing editor and writer for Catena Media. His expertise is covering the gambling industry in North America with an emphasis on the casino, sports betting, horse racing and poker sectors. He is currently reporting on the gaming industries in Illinois and Canada.

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