Racing & Wagering

Barn Notes: Wed. June 22

| Churchill Downs Communications | 06/22/2011 #

Arlington’s Prairie State Festival Saturday Keeps Block Building; Kristufek Previews Prairie State Festival Friday; Jockey Brandon Meier Back in the Saddle Wednesday

Trainer Chris Block, born in downstate Champaign, Illinois, has still not reached the backside of 40 chronologically, but despite his youth he is the acknowledged dean of Arlington Park’s Prairie State Festival.  

Inaugurated in 2000, the Prairie State Festival consists of six stakes races restricted to Thoroughbreds conceived and/or foaled in Illinois. All of them have purses of worth $100,000, and Block has saddled 51 horses over the years since the Festival’s inception and has won with 16 of them, far more than any other trainer in both those categories.

However, over the last two years Block has enjoyed admirable success running his horses in graded stakes competition, most notably posing in the winner’s circle in last fall’s Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs and last winter’s Grade I Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park with Virginia Tarra’s Giant Oak.

Other recent graded stakes wins for Block have come with Dundalk 5’s Dundalk Dust in the Grade II Falls City Handicap and Team Block and Rich Ege’s Askbut I Won’ttell at Churchill Downs last fall, as well as Churchill’s Grade III Louisville Handicap with Tom Fedro Sr. and Team Block’s Free Fighter in the spring of 2010.

After that kind of success, has Saturday’s Prairie State Festival lost some of its luster?

“Absolutely not,” said Block during training hours Wednesday morning.  “The Prairie State Festival has always been and will always be first and foremost for me.  All of this other stuff (graded stakes wins) is great, but the Illinois program is what my operation is all about.  If we can expand beyond that and win races in open company, that’s great, but our focus will always remain on the Illinois program.

“People might see me say that and think that is a lot of baloney,” Block said, “but I can tell you I’ll get just as much of a thrill saddling those horses I have in Saturday’s Festival as I did saddling Giant Oak in (Churchill’s Grade I) Stephen Foster last weekend.

“You see, I look at each race as a challenge,” Block concluded.  “The thing I like most about training is the satisfaction I get from setting a schedule for each horse I have and then enjoying it when they live up to my expectations.”

On Saturday, Block will saddle Dundalk Dust, as well as Timothy Keeley’s Peyote Patty in the Lincoln Heritage Handicap for state-bred fillies and mares on the grass; Team Block’s Hoodwinked in the Black Tie Affair Handicap, also on the turf; Team Block’s defending champion Shrewd Operator in the White Oak Handicap and Virginia Tarra’s Table Games as well as Team Block’s Mavericking in the Springfield Stakes. 

Prairie State Festival fans are advised that Arlington Park morning line odds-maker Joe Kristufek will host a “Big Event Chat” previewing the Prairie State Festival Friday evening at 7:30 p.m. on

Jockey Brandon Meier, seriously injured in a spill at Hawthorne Race Course Feb. 18, was named to ride John Carman’s Ripe Tomato in Wednesday’s first race for trainer Roger Brueggemann.

Meier, named Arlington’s Rising Star in 2007, is the son of longtime Arlington reinsman Randy Meier.

“I’m glad to be back this soon,” said Meier Wednesday morning during training hours.  “It’s been a long road back, but going through all that physical therapy was worth it.

“I don’t remember the fall at all,” said Meier.  “I came to in the hospital.  I was in intensive care for three days, and during that time I had two seizures.  I messed up the C-2, C-3 and C-4 vertebrae in my neck as well as my shoulder.  I had surgery on my shoulder, but the therapist healed my neck by placing her fingers in between in each vertebra every day and bending everything back into place.”