DU QUOIN, Ill. — As the management of the Chicago Bears is getting ready to present plans for the former Arlington International Racecourse in Arlington Heights, a group of harness horse racing devotees is working to make sure the Illinois horse racing and horse breeding industry stays alive in Illinois.
One of the epicenters of that effort is the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds in southern Illinois.
“We are on the cusp of some great things in Illinois,” said Tony Somone, executive director of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association.
Somone said that the closure of Arlington International was a blow to the state’s horse-racing industry.
“When Arlington Park closed down, that threw a kink into the whole thing. Now there is only one racetrack left, Hawthorne. We share that racecourse with the Thoroughbred horsemen and Hawthorne has been terrific about doing the best they can about racing both breeds, Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds,” he said.
Another person working to help retain and grow the horse racing and breeding industry in the state is Jerry Costello II, director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
“We had the highest number of horses, that we are aware of, stalled and training at the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds this year. We had 108 horses that were stalled and training here. In the past, that number would have been around 30 or 40. But 30 years ago, we had around 100,” he said.
Costello has more than a little hometown pride in southern Illinois’ horse racing and breeding industry.
He was born in Belleville and, as an Illinois state representative for eight years, he represented the 116th district, that includes Du Quoin and a swath of southeastern Illinois along the Mississippi River, from Cahokia south to below Chester.
“If you look at horse breeding, Illinois-conceived and Illinois-foaled horses, about 75%, maybe a little north of that number, as far as Illinois bred, conceived and raised horses, happens in southern Illinois,” Costello said.
One of the boosts for owners and trainers is an emphasis on renovation and repair to the horse barns at Du Quoin State Fairgrounds.
Josh Gross, Du Quoin State Fair and fairgrounds manager, said the barns are one of the areas targeted in the recent capital project list for Du Quoin.
“Some of them are high-use facilities. Obviously, the horse barns are in that. They had gotten into a state of disrepair and the tracks had become a little thin. With the governor’s help, what the director and I have done is put a plan together to target one barn a year. Get in there, completely clean it out, get everything back up to par, get the shell of the building reworked, from new roofs to paint, new gutters and making sure the drainage works,” Gross said.
The Du Quoin State Fairgrounds has four major barns and Gross said the goal is to try to get one of those barns completely revamped each year.
“If we can get all four of the big barns revamped, including adding in exhaust fans and other things to help with the seasonality of southern Illinois, we can have the barns full and fuller longer,” he said.
Costello said the upgrades at Du Quoin have attracted trainers and horses from out of state, as well, including Kentucky and surrounding states, as a place to stable and train horses.
For Somone, who hails from the Chicago area, the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds is a familiar place.
“I remember going to the last couple of Hambletonians when they were at Du Quoin, right at the end. Du Quoin was a year-round training facility and it was very crowded with Illinois horsemen plying their trade. Now there’s a resurgence. I’m told there are more and more people stabling at Du Quoin and it’s just tremendous — it’s good for everybody,” Somone said.
Another piece of the puzzle to keeping harness horse racing alive and growing in the state is the state’s county fair circuit.
“The county fairs are really the lifeblood of our Illinois sport and those races are so popular on the local level,” Somone said.
While the number of fairs hosting races has dropped, from about 40 fairs 15 years ago to just over 25 this year, according to Somone, those county fair tracks and stables continue to support and grow the harness racing industry in the state.
“We’re down to 27 or 28, but still, 27 or 28 county fairs are a lot of harness racing and many of them have races for two or three days. It’s the breeding ground, where horses are developed and trained, where horsemen go to work every day. The success of each county is imperative to the big picture,” he said.