Boyce / Matthews

Arlington, from all appearances, is in the twilight of existence. The Illinois breeding program, a relatively healthy institution at the turn of the century, has fallen into shambles, a shuffling shadow of its former incarnation. Yet here is veteran Arlington trainer Michele Boyce, who stable still houses ample Illinois-breds, soldiering through one the better summers of her 26-year training career.

With 14 winners through racing on Aug. 5, Boyce at this meet trails only Brittany Vanden Berg, who has 20 wins, and Larry Rivelli, who operates in his own Arlington universe and has lapped the field with 52 winners this season. Boyce’s highest Arlington win total, 20 in 2017, is in range, and her stable has won with six of her last 13 runners, including with two first-time starting 2-year-olds from familiar families.

“It’s been a good meet for me, it really has. We have to enjoy it now because we won’t have it for long,” Boyce said.

Those recent 2-year-old debut winners came days apart, Purr Sea winning on July 29, Plus Chic on Aug. 1. Both fillies were bred and are owned by Steve and Diane Holland’s S.D. Brillie Limited Partnership, long affiliated with these pedigrees.

Purr Sea, an Illinois-bred by Midshipman, is out of Kitty’s Castle, whose first foal, Cat Attack, will come under discussion shortly. The Hollands bred Kitty’s Castle (who nearly died of colic before becoming a broodmare) and Boyce trained her, while the Hollands also bred and owned Kitty’s Castle’s dam, Holy Kitten, who was trained by Christine Janks. The Hollands acquired and raced Holy Kitten’s dam, Really Blessed, who was foaled back in 1986.

Plus Chic, a Kentucky-bred by More Than Ready, is the ninth foal to race out of the late Chic Dancer, who was bred by the Hollands and raced for Janks, winning the Grade 3 Modesty Stakes in 2006 at Arlington. Boyce believes Plus Chic is Chic Dancer’s best foal since 2012, when she produced Her Emmynency, who went on to win the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland for trainer Mike Stidham.

Plus Chic won her maiden race, an open turf sprint, by 3 ¼ lengths, earning a 59 Beyer Speed Figure. Purr Sea debuted in an Illinois-bred maiden sprint on Polytrack, winning by more than 13 lengths with a 73 Beyer. But margin of victory and speed figures don’t tell all, and Boyce rates Plus Chic the more talented horse.

“I don’t know if Purr Sea is quite as good, but she’s not far behind,” Boyce said. “She’s very forward, a very sensible horse. We actually call her the babysitter. If we have a 2-year-old acting up, we send her out with them to calm them down. She’s just got a good attitude -- as good as they come.”

Boyce said Plus Chic took some time to get used to racetrack life but has settled in nicely this summer. “She went on about her business when she raced. She could pass for a 3-year-old.”

Purr Sea’s 3-year-old sister, Cat Attack, is one of two entrants Boyce has for one of two Illinois-bred turf stakes on Saturday’s card at Arlington, the $75,000 Sharon Kirby Memorial. The other is Katie M’Lady, a homebred owned by Cherrywood Racing Stables and Oak Rock Racing. Boyce trained her dam, stakes winner Katie the Lady, and trained Katie the Lady’s dam, stakes-winner Kate the Great. One of the two is the likely winner of the Kirby.

“They’re pretty close, those two fillies. I almost have to give an edge to Cat. Katie’s been off a while and she might not be quite as sharp right now as the Cat is. I’ll close my eyes and hope for the best,” said Boyce.

Illinois racing’s future? Who knows? Yet these Boyce-trained families of Illinois racehorses keep rolling along.

Matthews making something from little

Doug Matthews has a pair of unraced 2-year-olds in his Arlington string. They look decent.

“So far, they’ve done everything good and are showing some talent. I should get them both started before the meet’s over,” Matthews said.

Two horses – that’s one-third of Matthews’ entire operation this summer.

Yet the veteran trainer is having his best Arlington season in years, those four running horses already having produced five wins from just 15 starts. Matthews won one race the entire 2020 Arlington season and hasn’t won more than five in a meet since 2012, when he had his best year at Arlington, winning 12.

“The last five years have been slow,” said Matthews. “All my owners got old and either died or retired from racing. The pandemic didn’t help us and racing here in general has been going downhill. I used to get some horses every summer from Kentucky, but the purses got so good down there I didn’t get them anymore.”

Matthews is 57 and he has been around, both through time and space. He got his first assistant trainer’s license as an 18-year-old at Fonner Park in Nebraska and has raced horses all over the country, either as an assistant trainer or out on his own. “You name it, I’ve probably been there.” Before he began training on his own in 1994, Matthews spent seven years as an assistant to famed, late trainer Noel Hickey, an Irish import who became perennial leading horseman in Chicago during his heyday and won a Breeders’ Cup Turf with perhaps the best Illinois-bred ever, Bucks Boy. Matthews was around for those glory days, which were trying on the inside of an operation run by a prickly head trainer. “I learned to put up with a lot. It kept you mentally strong,” he said.

Matthews association with top-level raceshorses goes even deeper into the past. Growing up in Council Bluffs, Iowa, he went across the Missouri River as a high-schooler to walk hots during the summer at Ak-Sar-Ben Racecourse in Omaha. Matthews got hired by future Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg and among the horses he walked was Gate Dancer, who won the 1984 Preakness Stakes and later that year crossed the finish second but was disqualified to third in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Classic. 

“I walked Gate Dancer when he was a 2-year-old. He paid something like $14 when he won at Ak-Sar-Ben first time out. At the time, that was one of the biggest bets I made,” Matthews said.

It’s a long way from Gate Dancer to Matthews’ current stable star, a grinding turf horse named Draft Capital. Matthews got Draft Capital from another trainer in May after the Uncle Mo colt had raced twice, losing by a combined 42 lengths. At Arlington, racing on turf, he finished third in a $12,500 maiden claimer in his first start for Matthews, then won a race at that class level, came back to win a $12,500 non-winners-of-two claimer, and on July 22 managed to knock out an open first-level allowance win.

“Just racing,” Matthews said, explaining Draft Capital’s arc of improvement. “He just needed to race to learn; he was one of those slow learners, real immature.”

Diddley won a low-level Polytrack race, win no. 4 for the meet, and Matthews’ fifth win came from Dollar Blue, who won, at odds of 25-1, a July 9 turf-route starter allowance fresh off a $7,500 Matthews claim.

Small sample size this summer, sure, but Matthews’ mini resurgence is a reminder that the man knows his way around a racehorse -- and has for a long time. Having his best Arlington meet in years, Matthews, like so many Chicago horse people, now can stare straight into the utter uncertainty of 2022.

“Don’t know what I’ll do yet – trying to come up with a plan. You can go other places, but your owners are all different. And some owners don’t want to be in the business anymore if Arlington’s not running. That’s a problem,” he said.