Robertson / Becker & Stiritz / Patti Miller

STICKNEY, Illinois – Hugh Robertson has started sleeping in.

For decades Robertson, 68, woke up about 3 a.m., always one of the first trainers on the backstretch, be it Hawthorne, Arlington, or Fair Grounds, the three-track circuit the Nebraska native inhabits these days. Now, when he rolls out of bed at 5 (still up before the sun, of course), Robertson lifts 20 fewer pounds to lift out of bed than he did in late February, when a fully blocked carotid artery caused Robertson to suffer a stroke and landed him in a New Orleans hospital.

“I’m doing fine – completely normal now,” said Robertson, who has his stable set up at Hawthorne, poised for the move to Arlington for the rest of the spring and summer. “I’ve been going to the barn and working, doing my normal routine. Eating some healthier food, though.”

Robertson, still recovering from his health problem in early March, vowed to contract his stable considerably – perhaps down to 25 horses or so -- as his long, successful career approaches the quarter-pole. Instead, he has more than 40 horses at Hawthorne and could have at least 50 when he sets up shop at Arlington. Robertson’s son, Mac, has about 70 head in Arkansas and can’t take all of them to his Canterbury Park summer base. Robertson might have wanted to cut his numbers, but right now there are just too many Robertson horses, which is not, in the end and in this era of racing, such a problem, after all.

Robertson just welcomed 10 two-year-olds into his Chicago string, and he also has started training Hotshot Anna again. Hotshot Anna, whom Robertson owns himself, earned more than $400,000 and rated as the leading synthetic-surface older-filly sprinter in America during 2018, when she won the Grade 3 Chicago Handicap by more than six lengths and the Grade 2, $400,000 Presque Isle Downs Masters by more than four. Hotshot Anna spooked while getting a bath early last winter at Fair Grounds, flipped over on pavement, and fractured her withers. No surgery was required, and after a good, long, healing rest, Hotshot Anna is healed up and ready to get serious – just in time for a 2019 campaign that ought to hit the same spots as her lucrative 2018 season.

“The rest probably did her some good. She looks like a mare now, not a filly,” Robertson said.

The Robertson-trained Wynn Time, an Illinois-bred by the Robertson-owned stallion, Three Hour Nap, needed some farm rest after going three for three in stakes competition during the Fair Grounds meet, but Robertson said Wynn Time will rejoin his stable next month at Arlington.

As for Three Hour Nap, who very, very quietly has proven to be a capable stallion, Robertson said his book of mares this year has shot all the way up to about a dozen this breeding season. It will be good to see more Three Hour Nap babies running around Illinois in a couple years – and it is good to see Hugh Robertson, a foundational horseman on the Chicago circuit, back in robust health and out at the track again.

 Becker, Stiritz winning everything

There are good weeks, and then there is the three-day Hawthorne racing week spanning April 11 through April 13 that owner William Stiritz and his private trainer, Scott Becker, put together.

Eight starters, six wins, two thirds. Even the losses weren’t losses, since they came in races where Stiritz and Becker had two runners.

“Big week, good run,” said Becker, who benefited from Hawthorne using a surprising number of maiden-special-weight and allowance races during the three days. “I couldn’t believe how many of those races got to go.”

Stiritz and Becker, long one of the top couple outfits in Illinois racing, have established a bulkhead in Florida – and with the state of the sport in Illinois, who could blame them. Becker kept 10 horses at Gulfstream Park over the winter and said he has “a lot of Florida-bred 2-year-olds.”

Still, Stiritz, who owns Fairmount Park, has plenty of Illinois-bred horses. “We still want to be on this circuit, in our home state. We’ll still try to participate and keep things going,” said Becker.

Becker doesn’t typically keep a string at Hawthorne during the winter dark period but did so this year and, when the Hawthorne meet opened, was feeling the effect of the Chicago winter. Hawthorne racing secretary Allen Plever said before the meet opened that Becker had told him his horses weren’t quite ready to go. 

“It was a rough winter and the track kept closing. I don’t send them out there when the track’s got frozen rocks on it and stuff,” Becker said. “I had a couple more works left when the meet started.”

Becker got in his works. Then Stiritz’s horses got all the money.

Patti Miller’s stable of intrigue

Does Patti Miller train any normal horses?

During 2018 she notched two of her nine victories with Desani’s Chance, who began last year a 10-year-old maiden – something like a circus freak – and ended it a merely a very useful Illinois-bred racehorse.

Miller’s first win of 2019 came with her second start of the year, a filly named Risky Risky Risky, who captured race 4 on Thursday, an Illinois-bred maiden, in her first start for Miller.

Risky Risky Risky is no 10-year-old maiden, but neither is she a cookie-cutter horse. Miller’s owner, Lucky Charms Enterprises, claimed Risky Risky Risky for a mere $10,000 last fall at Gulfstream Park. Now, $10,000 is quite a bit of money to many of us, but it also is a mere fraction of the $175,000 stud fee commanded by Risky Risky Risky’s sire, the great Curlin, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the Preakness, and the Dubai World Cup. Curlin stands in Kentucky, of course, and has sired only a handful of Illinois-breds, but the off-beat nature of the horse doesn’t end there.

Risky Risky Risky was bred and initially owned by the Carent Stable of Brent Houck and Carol Delgado, a husband-wife team from Naperville who earned their greatest fame for being charged with a financial fraud scheme that helped support their Thoroughbred interests.

There was nothing fraudulent Thursday about Risky Risky Risky, who rallied between horses under Constantino Roman to win going away at a sprint distance likely short of her best.

“She definitely wants to run a lot farther, but I was a little afraid to run her long first time, and she got the job done,” said Miller. “She’s a non-sweater and she struggled down in Florida. We got her up north, and she’s doing real good now.”

Also training right along is Desani’s chance, now 11 but likely to be ready for a start early in the Arlington meet. Miller said multiple jockeys have approached her at Hawthorne to chat about Desani’s Chance.

“When he was a 10-year-old maiden nobody wanted to get on him, but now everyone wants to ride Desani,” she said.

***Hawthorne racing secretary Allen Plever said Thursday that he’s skeptical the track will be able to conduct turf racing before the end of the spring meeting next weekend. Several inches of snow fell on the course March 14 and, even after some good drying weather, has left the turf soggy.

“I’m hoping I’m wrong, but I suspect we’ll be off,” Plever said. “I was disappointed in what I saw out there.”