09/12/2006 11:00PM

Attracting fans is goal at meet


STICKNEY, Ill. - Hawthorne Race Course's fall-winter season features races with plenty of horses, but Chicago's gritty urban racing venue would like to have crowd size to match field size, and thus starts its 2006 season Friday boasting of revamped, fan-friendly facilities.

Bowing to the realities of the age, Hawthorne has closed off a significant part of its grandstand. On the ground level alone, some 30,000 of an original 70,000 square feet are no longer accessible. In the remaining areas, Hawthorne has sought to condense what was a sprawling, formless domain into community-style areas - bars, food kiosks, and stands of betting stations, with large-screen and flat-screen monitors judiciously added to the newly created spaces. A flat fee of $3 gets a fan a program and entrance into any part of the facility except a new horsemen's lounge and the Turf Club suites.

"We're pretty much putting in a new grandstand, and these things will continue to be developed," said Hawthorne president Tim Carey. "I do believe by doing what we're doing, we can attract more people from the OTB's, and then also maybe to attract younger fans with this sports-book feel."

An 11 percent decline last fall in ontrack handle on Hawthorne races probably spurred the changes. Hawthorne makes money when bettors play the track at Chicagoland's many betting parlors, but the track's take from OTB wagers on Hawthorne races is some 10 percent less than from ontrack bets. Fans also save a 2 percent surcharge by betting at Hawthorne rather than an OTB. How many more are willing to travel to this heavily industrialized corridor just outside Chicago proper remains to be seen. Bettors will find a new Place Pick-9 on the wagering menu. The infield tote board can now handle 14 betting interests.

Whatever the fan base, the horses come en masse. Last fall, Hawthorne averaged 8.5 starters per race; the year before, it was 9.1. That's a big increase over the 7.44 starters per race during the just-concluded Arlington meet.

"By next weekend, I'd think I'd have a full barn area," said Gary Duch, who predicted average daily purses in the $200,000 range, up from last season. "We should have a good meet."

Chris Emigh won the Arlington riding title, and has to be heavily favored to win again at Hawthorne. Mike Reavis, Frank Kirby, and, of course, Wayne Catalano figure prominently among trainers. The stakes schedule peaks Sept. 30, Hawthorne Gold Cup Day.