July 21, 2024

Arlington-to-Churchill stakes transfers rare ones across state lines

Two long-standing features at Arlington will have a new home in 2017. (Four Footed Fotos)

The release of Churchill Downs’ spring meet stakes schedule on Monday included a surprise, two in fact. Rather than have them dormant for the second time in three years, the Matron H. (G3) and Chicago H. (G3), mainstays at Arlington Park for decades, have found a new home for 2017.

As Churchill Downs Inc. operates both the flagship Louisville track and Arlington, it holds the rights to the stakes run at those facilities. Arlington had already announced that it would not run either the Matron or Chicago this season, and to help preserve their future graded status the races have been transferred to Churchill.

This is not the first time marquee races have moved, temporarily at least, from Arlington. After a fire destroyed the Arlington grandstand in 1985, the Arlington-Washington Futurity (G1) and Arlington-Washington Lassie (G1), as well other stakes, were run that fall at Hawthorne. Three years later, the Arlington Million (G1) was run at Woodbine while a new Arlington stand was built.

There are numerous examples of notable stakes being run at tracks other than their original home, generally after said tracks went defunct. Almost all such stakes tend to go to tracks on the same circuit, though not necessarily ones under similar ownership. A prime recent example are the graded stakes that were dispersed to Santa Anita, Del Mar, and Los Alamitos following the closure of Hollywood Park.

The Matron and Chicago are the rare races that have found a new home across state lines. Another recent example is the absorption by the Maryland Jockey Club of three graded turf stakes — now known as the Commonwealth Derby (G2), Commonwealth Turf Cup (G2) and Commonwealth Oaks (G3) and run at Laurel —  that were previously held at the currently dormant Colonial Downs in Virginia.

Further back in history, Saratoga played host to the Delaware H. (G1) in the 1980s while the financially-strapped Delaware Park was closed for a couple of years. In 1997, Prairie Meadows took ownership of the Cornhusker H. (G3) two years after its original home, Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha, Nebraska, shut its doors for good.

Some might argue the most significant example is the Preakness (G1), though there are a lot of inconsistencies according to the Maryland Jockey Club’s own records. Around 1948, the Maryland Jockey Club “found” records of 15 runnings of a Preakness being held at Gravesend in New York from 1894 to 1908 and incorporated them into the race’s history. An 1890 running at Morris Park in New York was found later.

According to the present-day Preakness media guide, however, these New York runnings often had conditions that restricted the race to three-year-olds and up (in 1890) or for “three-year-olds which have not won a race of the value of $xxxx up to the date of closing entries,” a far cry from the non-restricted conditions in place for all Maryland-run renewals. Those restricted conditions suggest there was little or no relation between those races and its Maryland forbearer.

A 1924 Maryland Jockey Club publication made no mention of any Preakness run prior to 1909.

In another twist, a 1924 publication of the Maryland Jockey Club had the Preakness dating only to 1909, with no mention at all of any being run at Old Hilltop from 1873 through 1889.

Whatever the Preakness history may be, Churchill Downs inherits two stakes this spring with considerable histories of their own. Up through the 1960s, the (Arlington) Matron was one of the premier Midwest races for fillies and mares. Among its honor roll of winners were champions Askmenow, Sickle’s Image, Real Delight, Lavender Hill, Pucker Up, Royal Native, Smart Deb, Tosmah, and Old Hat. Earlier this century, notables such as Take Charge Lady and Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) winner Adoration both prevailed.

The Chicago H., inaugurated in 1986, has been won by champions Safely Kept and Informed Decision, and also showcased talented sprinters such as Lazer Show, Meafara, J J’sdream, and Happy Ticket.

On a personal note, I witnessed Fit for a Queen (with Pat Day up) prevail in the Chicago on my most recent visit to Arlington…on June 30, 1990. Yes, quite a time ago.