Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: In Three Decades, Block Has Seen A Lot Of Change In Illinois Racing

When people ask children what they want to be when they grow up, the answers — sometimes comical, sometimes fanciful, and rarely practical — are rarely predictive of their eventual career path.

But for Chris Block, it was always a given that no matter where his life took him, no matter what job he aspired to or settled for, horses would always follow.

“My family has been in the industry in Illinois breeding and racing for probably more than 50 years,” said Block. “I grew up around the racing industry with my father and mother allowing me to get involved and taking me to the track and giving me the experience of going to the races. It is something that I cherish from my childhood days.

“First and foremost, I love horses, so that made it easy for me to get involved. I was fascinated by the racing part of it so those two loves I just combined. I had it in my mind that I wanted to be in the industry in some capacity and training was what interested me the most.”

After attending the equine program at a junior college in Illinois for two years, during which he worked for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, Block was eventually able to strike out on his own in 1989. It was his parents who would give him his first break, sending him to Kentucky with a handful of homebred horses. Block sent out his first horse at Turfway Park but kept his sights on a return to the Windy City. Greater still was the goal of acquiring stalls at Arlington Park, the beating heart of Chicago racing.

“My eventual plan was to make my way to Chicago which I did. Once I was there, my first win was at Sportsman’s Park,” said Block. “My father, he enjoys the industry just as much as me, he went and bought me a couple ready-made horses out of sales and it took off from there. It wasn’t easy getting stalls and getting established in Chicago but my most favorite racetrack, and my family’s, is Arlington. I was fortunate enough to get in there and I got four stalls. I eventually graduated to 10 stalls and at one point I had 50 stalls.”

Since that first horse left the gate at Turfway Park, Block has sent out 1,358 winners to date and banked more than $46 million in purses. Among his top winners is Grade 1 Clark Handicap and G1 Donn Handicap winner Giant Oak, who stood at Millennium Farms in Kentucky until his premature death in 2017. Block now maintains contingents of horses in Illinois, Kentucky, and Louisiana, though his home base remains Chicago.

But three decades after Block returned to Illinois with the overarching intent of racing and supporting his state program, Block, his family, and the entirety of the Illinois Thoroughbred breeding and racing community find themselves in a precarious situation. The closure of Arlington has left the state’s horsemen in limbo and while the passage of an expanded gaming bill could bring business back to the state, relief may not come fast enough.

“Arlington closing was devastating,” said Block. “The history of Illinois horse racing in the last 10 years … no one would believe the book if I wrote it. I’ve been heavily involved in the political process. I lobbied hard with my constituents here to get gaming at the racetracks. I stood arm and arm with the Arlington/Churchill representatives in Springfield and the Hawthorne representatives in a strong effort to save the industry that was headed in the wrong direction and behind the times.

“The model of gaming at the racetracks and ‘racinos’ works in every other state. We worked hard and passed the gaming bill twice, but it was vetoed twice by Governor (Pat) Quinn for various reasons. That set us back, but then we passed it again with the current Governor, J. B. Pritzker. But Churchill turned their back and partnered up with Rivers Casino. They have now left a gaping hole in the industry that I’m not sure we can recover from unless Hawthorne Park comes through with their racino and there have been major delays with that. This is a central struggle that I face as a trainer and my family and so many others face and breeders and owners.”

Faced with a truncated Illinois racing calendar that now only includes 75 days, drastically cutting the opportunities for trainers, breeders, and owners to take advantage of Illinois-bred incentives, Block is concerned that breeding with continue to decline until the program is all but snuffed out.

“We have about 60 acres and we currently we have 14 broodmares,” said Block. “That’s been a number that is consistent for us. We have had more, and even though the industry has really struggled in the last 10 years, my parents have held strong. But it has been a real struggle for Team Block. We’re going to hang in there, but we are concerned about the future. From a breeding standpoint, even 10 years ago the industry was producing 1,000 foals. The last count for 2021 was 151 and we hear it will dip under 100 for next year.”

In an effort to help supplement their breeding program, Block and his family have had to retool their strategy and focus some of their mares on strictly breeding to sell. For the past three years, the family have sold those designated foals at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale. The rest remain with the family and go on to race.

Similar to the change in he’s seen in the breeding shed, Block has experienced a notable reduction in the number of horses in his racing stable.

“I used to have close to 50 plus horses in the barn. This year, the number of horses was 27,” said Block. “The effects of what has happened in the state can be seen right there, and I think that number will dwindle even more. The program won’t work much longer unless we see benefit from the passage of the gaming bill.

“We’re also hoping a miracle happens at Arlington Park and that someone partners with the Chicago Bears, who are in line to buy the property, and puts together a multi-purpose design for that ground. It’s one of the most beautiful racetracks in the world and we want that to be preserved. We want the chance to be able to race there in the future. We’re the third largest market for horse racing and how racing could be on death’s door here is beyond me. The horsemen find it amazing that we’ve arrived at this point. We’ve tried our best, but we’ve been dealt bad cards along the way by entities who have turned their back on the industry.”

With so uncertainty a reality that he has come to accept, Block continues to do what he loves: train. On a brighter note, his barn continues to churn out winners — among them, 5-year-old homebred Another Mystery (by Temple City), who took the Bob F. Wright Memorial Stakes Nov. 27 at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots.

“Another Mystery has jumped to the forefront for the barn,” said Block. “Another horse that has been the stalwart for my barn before him is Cammack (Giant’s Causeway). He’s 11 and he’s been what I call the ‘blue collar’ horse. He’s raced in Illinois for the majority of his life, and he’s been so consistent.

“I also have a filly by the name of Fate Factor who has been a really strong one for us, and we have another filly named She Can’t Sing for that I train for Mr. [Bob] Lothenbach who has had a really good year. Then we have some young horses that are really improving, so we’ve been doing pretty well.”

A member of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association board, Block plans to continue his efforts to improve the state of racing at home and has thrown his hat in the ring as a candidate for president of the association. With so much on the line, he’s prepared to go to bat for his horses and Illinois racing and breeding interests. The alternative, for Block, is unthinkable.

“Really, if you looked at Indiana, and you look at Pennsylvania, and you look at New York, that is where Illinois should be,” said Block. “I just hope we don’t see what is happening in Illinois in other states.

“We’re at a crucial point for racing and breeding here in Illinois. It will either survive, and get really, really good, or it will crash and burn very quickly here. I want to see if I can make a difference.”

The post Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: In Three Decades, Block Has Seen A Lot Of Change In Illinois Racing appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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