ILLINOIS RACING COMMENTARY

01:08 AM 22 Nov 2005 NZDT
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Tony Morgan is a stoic lanky country farm boy from rural Ohio. A brief curtly response is his conversational calling card.

When he has something important to say, he’s blunt and to the point. That’s how he handled his job as president of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association the past eight years prior to resigning his post in August.

As one of the Chicago circuits most prolific harness drivers the past 20-years, Tony Morgan has earned himself top honours among North American drivers the last ten years with the winning statements he has made on the track.

The 47-Year-Old Beecher, Illinois resident spoke volumes recently when he threw up his arms in frustration and moved his tack full time to Dover Downs in Delaware. Dover is one of many tracks outside Illinois that has large nightly purses subsidized by on site gaming and a supportive legislature.

What has thwarted his passion for competing in Illinois is the complicated political and financial mess the horse racing industry has been embroiled in statewide for years.

“I made my assessment of what the tracks were making off the horsemen, and what the horsemen were getting from the tracks and decided I had enough,” Morgan stated.

“I thought we tried to get more revenue for horsemen, but the tracks weren’t making enough money and yet getting a profit from recapture (money recaptured from the horsemen’s revenue by the tracks for revenue lost to simulcasting and other outside gaming). So why race here for $60,000 a night when I can race for $160,000 a night there (Dover Downs)?”

Morgan is not a rebellious young, single fly-by-night driver trying to hook on to horses when he can. The son of a former successful harness driver, Eddie Morgan Junior, Tony has been one of the most dominant drivers on the Chicago circuit since the late 1980’s. He has appeared among the top ten winning drivers on the continent since the mid-1990’s, winning the North American dash title three times and the Driver of the Year Trophy three times from the Harness Tracks of America.

Through November 15, Morgan has won 564 races, placed 451, and finished third 384 with 2004 earnings of $4,053,267. That gives him 9,724 wins overall and $64,000,000 in career purses money.

Leaving the Chicago harness racing circuit and his home here was not in the plans until earlier this year.

“I got a wife and kids at home and they don’t wanna move,” Morgan admits with frustration. “They don’t like it. I’ve got my plan for my life. When I’m sixty, I want to be doing this for fun. I don’t want to sell off my assets to stay afloat.”

Morgan admits it’s his love of competing and winning that drives him, but false promises from the Governor and political conflict of interests on the Illinois Racing Board have forced his hand to race in other states.

“The Governor (Rod Blagovich) was active in our camp before he got elected, then wouldn’t support gaming legislation to subsidize horse racing after he took office,” argues Morgan.

“The key legislators who supported our issues wouldn’t back a bill, because Blagovich wasn’t supporting one.”

As for the IRB, Morgan doesn’t hold much back.

“I don’t want to sound like sour grapes, but the tracks have a lot to say about who gets on the (Illinois Racing) board,” Morgan observed from his many years working with both groups. “The last (racing) dates go-around was the worst allotment of dates I’ve ever seen. They were politically served and irresponsible to all horsemen. Hawthorne gives up 80 percent of their recapture to keep their harness purses up in the summer and the IRB doesn’t give them more dates, yet Maywood races for $22,000 a night!”

Anyone who has worked with Morgan knows his competitive fire fuels his determination to do his best at whatever he’s doing. Pulling up stakes, to be his best elsewhere, may be a red flag to others.

“Tony did the best he could for the horsemen,” states Hall of Fame driver Dave Magee. “We didn’t talk about his move. He’s passionate about his views, which are well thought out. He’s always been convicted and sincere in his belief’s on what is best for the industry.”

Magee is also an established winner on the Chicago circuit and a devout family man who doesn’t like the thought of leaving Illinois for greener pastures, but hasn’t ruled it out.

“People came here because it was a premium market,” admitted Magee. “But now with other markets being more competitive with purses, they’ve become more appealing. Our purse structure problem is compounded by the recapture issue. I’m leaving my options open to other possibilities. We all have invested in Chicago racing, but we do have responsibilities to our families.”

Mickey Ezzo has worked for the Illinois Racing Board the past seven years, is a veteran harness steward and was the IHHA Executive Director for 14-years. He’s known Morgan since he was Eddie Morgan Junior’s little kid hanging around the barns on the Kentucky harness circuit.

“I was surprised when he said he was leaving for Delaware, but kind of expected it after he resigned from the IHHA in the summer,” admitted Ezzo. “Tony is one of the most talented horsemen in Illinois and elsewhere. When he first became IHHA President, he was rough around the edges. He worked hard to become quite articulate of how the industry worked and became an excellent speaker for the horsemen. He was one of the few who could galvanize the horsemen, who have always been a splintered group.”

In the past few years top drivers such as Eric Ledford, Andy Miller, Pat Berry and Ken Rucker have left the yearlong Chicago circuit to drive in more lucrative markets for a period of time. Horsemen striking at the beginning of the New Year for more financial assurances in their contract from the track owners, have been periodically problematic the past decade, chasing drivers away. That appears only a remote possibility this coming January.

“Whatever decision the IHHA makes, they have to stick together,” Morgan suggested. “I was amazed at how strong the horsemen were when it came to crunch time. The point is, the tracks can cut their expenses, appear to take a loss, then make their profits on the money they get back from recapture.”

John Johnston is the President of Balmoral Park and son of Billy Johnston Junior whose family owns and operates Balmoral and Maywood Park, where most of the Chicago circuit harness racing is scheduled. He doesn’t think Morgan’s absence from the driver colony will be missed.

“I have no problem with him leaving,” Johnston said. “Drivers come and go. Ledford, Miller and others have gone out East and come back. I don’t see it as a big issue. We have very qualified drivers to fill that void.”

Johnston admits there are problems getting stronger purse structures built through legislative support, but the tracks continue to work toward improving those issues.

“I think new revenue is important to the growth and future of our industry, but there’s nothing current on the legislative calendar to address that at this time.” As for contract issues with the horsemen, Johnston expects racing to continue into 2006 without an interruption. “Our economic terms are spelled out in state statutes with the IHHA, who we’re talking to. They can race without a contract. They just use that as a tool in negotiating.”

Thomas Carey III is the President of Hawthorne Race Course. He sees Morgan’s giving up on the Chicago circuit fulltime as an indication of things to come.

“It’s a very clear indication of the sad state of affairs of the pari-mutual industry in Illinois,” Carey points out. “When a guy like Morgan, who has led the charge, says he’s had enough. That says a lot about the opportunities we have been striving for, but haven’t been given, to offer more competitive prices to our customers and our horsemen.”

Carey, like Morgan, is bluntly frustrated that the state of Illinois hasn’t followed up on the 1999 House Racing Equity Fund that would subsidize horse racing from riverboat gaming revenue.

“This is the beginning of an exodus of good quality horsemen out of state due to the lack of legislative action to generate more revenue for Illinois and Illinois racing.”

Morgan, who will drive at Maywood Friday nights through the end of the year, because Dover is dark Fridays, believes “being subsidised by slots or gaming is the key, not necessarily slots at tracks. I just don’t see anything happening for years.”

With no light at the end of the tunnel that he’s been digging through for years in Illinois, Tony Morgan is taking his tools to where the pastures, and purses, are greener.

It’s unlikely he’ll be the last to move his tack from Illinois.

Courtesy Of Joe Paschen

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