It was a busy, productive winter for Chris Block – and not just because he was elected president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association in December.
Block ran a string at Fair Grounds, overseen by his longtime assistant Martin Martinez, that won five races during a meet extending from Thanksgiving through the end of March. Impressively, three of those victories came in stakes races, and Team Block added another stakes win at Sam Houston Race Park, where Another Mystery captured the $200,000 John B. Connally Turf Cup in January.
At Fair Grounds, Another Mystery won the Bob F. Wright Memorial Stakes last November. She Can’t Sing accounted for the other two Fair Grounds stakes wins, the $100,000 Albert M. Stall Memorial in February and the $100,000 Tom Benson Memorial in March.
“It was a pretty good winter, actually. I thought the Fair Grounds meet was as good for us as it’s gone,” said Block, who has stabled in New Orleans the last three winters. “Martin does a great job. He’d gotten to the point where he’d earned a shot doing something like this. He’s been working for me a long time. I felt good giving him a chance and he’s really stepped into the role nicely.”
She Can’t Sing, a 5-year-old Lothenbach Stables homebred by Bernardini out of the Distorted Humor mare, Distorted Music, proved a revelation when Block tried her in two-turn turf races. The mare had shown ability in turf sprints and, even more so, dirt sprints, but those two recent stakes wins marked She Can’t Sing’s first two-turn turf races in a couple years.
“I feel relieved because I was always searching for what was fitting that filly the best,” said Block. “I’ve brought her to Hawthorne and might use a race here to get her to the Mint Julep in June at Churchill.”
Six-year-old Another Mystery was bred in Illinois by Team Block, a son of Temple City and the Blocks’ excellent producer, Ioya Two. After dead-heating in the Connally, Another Mystery finished eighth in the Muniz Memorial at Fair Grounds. He’s scheduled to race again April 23 at Keeneland in the $350,000 Elkhorn, where he’s likely to meet an even more accomplished turf horse well known in these parts, Two Emmys. Trained by Hugh Robertson, who has a large string at Hawthorne right now, Two Emmys won the Grade 1 Mr. D Stakes last summer and went wire to wire in the $300,000 Muniz.
Four-year-old Charlie’s Penny worked April 8 at Hawthorne as Block continues bringing her toward her first start since the filly won the Silverbulletday Stakes at Fair Grounds in January 2021. And Block said a 2022 campaign awaits for the ageless Cammack. Now 12, Cammack, another Team Block Illinois homebred, is a 16-time winner from 59 career starts. “I don’t think I can run anywhere but Illinois since most places won’t take an entry for a 12-year-old,” Block said.
Block, like everyone else used to stabling summers at Arlington, will have to find a new home this year. He said his plan is to send horses to Ellis Park in Kentucky and Colonial Downs in Virginia when the Hawthorne meet concludes in June. His role as president of the ITHA means Block also must focus on helping membership manage a very difficult situation this year. Block said former president Mike Campbell laid the groundwork for a comfortable presidential transition, which further was aided by ITHA executive director David McCaffrey.
“I know there are great challenges ahead of us. High on our list right now is finding a second racetrack here for our horsemen and our industry, finding a place for the harness to get to so we have our spot at Hawthorne.” Block said. “There are so many unanswered questions.”
Breeze rides on
Southern Illinois-based trainer Steve Manley had a hell of a 2021 fall-winter meet at Hawthorne, where his runners compiled an excellent 54-21-9-9 record. And that didn’t even include a start by the Manley stable star.
The 5-year-old mare Breeze Rider has been travelling up and down the heart of the United States for the last year. With Chicago-based jockey E.T. Baird her steady pilot, Breeze Rider has taken down nearly $400,000 in purses the last two calendar years. That’s quite a haul for a horse claimed for $15,000 on New Year’s Day 2021 by owner Mike Piazza.
“My owner picked her out. He got on the computer, he liked her, and he asked me if I could get it done,” Manley said. “She tries every time.”
Tries every time – and wins much of the time. Breeze Rider has eight wins from 15 starts since Piazza claimed her. Since November, she’s won a turf stakes at Fair Grounds, a turf stakes at Sam Houston, and two synthetic-surface stakes at Turfway Park. Most recently, Breeze Rider, by Paynter out of Dancing Raven, by Tomahawk, finished second in the $198,000 Latonia on April 2 at Turfway.
“It was depressing to get beat because she wins all the time,” Manley conceded.
Baird, an absolute ace riding speed horses, plays to Breeze Riders’ strength; the pair has a record of 6-4-1-0 since Baird took over riding duties.
Manley, 59, has been around the racing block. He was working a factory job in Saint Louis making photo albums when he started training in 1987. “I actually wouldn’t mind going back to a regular job,” he said. “This seven days a week is tough. And there’s no help anymore.”
Manley made 131 starts at Chicago-area tracks in 2021. That number will dwindle in 2022. Manley has 30 stalls at Fairmount and said he’ll ship where his horses fit best. “Indiana, Churchill, Hawthorne – purses are good at all of them.”
Breeze Rider and Baird figure to be out and about, too.
Manny Esquivel launched his race-riding career during 2013 in Chicago after learning the craft as an exercise rider at Hawthorne working under his uncle, Cipriano Contreras, then a longtime assistant to trainer Mike Reavis.
Esquivel and Contreras, now a successful head trainer on his own, team up with the likely favorite, Home Base, in the featured race Sunday at Hawthorne. And this is no phantom feature, either. The seventh of eight races on a solid card, this is a high-end, six-furlong allowance with a $50,000 claiming option, and it attracted talented racehorses.
Home Base, who makes his Hawthorne debut, has been racing at Oaklawn Park, where he finished second three starts ago in the $150,000 King Cotton Stakes. Among the opposition are three horses that won races here last fall – Like A Saltshaker, Aggressivity, and Malpais. Also entered is 8-year-old Illinois-bred veteran What’s Up Dude, who has earned more than $350,000 during a 52-start career.