10/04/2017 2:56PM

Chicago racing resumes with increased purses

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STICKNEY, Ill. – With a relatively unexpected late-summer boost from Illinois government, Thoroughbred racing returns Friday to Hawthorne for a 37-day fall-winter meeting.

The Illinois legislature passed a budget in August, marking the first time in almost two years the state had a budget of any sort. Thanks in great part to lobbying from the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, the budget restored two years worth of funding for Illinois owners’ awards, a windfall of about $3.5 million to the state’s racetracks.

Before the money became available, the Hawthorne stakes schedule included just two $50,000 races, the Pat Whitworth Illinois Debutante and the Jim Edgar Illinois Futurity, but the windfall has brought eight more stakes races onto the schedule, including the Hawthorne Gold Cup. Once a major fall older-horse dirt race with a purse as high as $500,000, the Gold Cup was canceled in 2016, but it is back Nov. 25 with a purse of $150,000. Also returning to the schedule is the $100,000 Hawthorne Derby, a turf race scheduled for Oct. 28. Additionally, six Illinois-bred $100,000 stakes were added to the schedule.

Hawthorne also has been able to considerably boost purses for Illinois-bred races. Statebred-restricted maiden claimers and claimers are worth $7,500 more than had been budgeted, while maiden and allowance races got a $10,000 purse boost. The first race Friday, a $10,000 nonwinners-of-two claimer for Illinois-breds, carries a relatively healthy $16,500 pot. Race 8, a first-level Illinois-bred allowance race, has a $30,700 purse.

There will be times, no doubt, when Hawthorne struggles to fill cards this meet, but opening day was not one of them, with 98 entrants in nine races.

“We were pleased,” racing secretary Allen Plever said. “We even stayed away from a couple turf races with the threat of rain.”

Plever said he allocated more than 1,500 stalls for the meet and expects to have about 1,200 horses on the grounds when the equine population peaks at the meet. That is at least a moderate increase over the fall-winter 2016 meet, when Hawthorne averaged 7.8 starters per race.

“I’m sure my superiors would like to see that get over eight this year,” Plever said.

Hawthorne starts its meet racing four-day weeks, but goes down to three days in November and two in December as horsemen leave for winter quarters in Louisiana, Florida, and Arkansas. An unusually warm month of September could help sustain use of the grass course; Hawthorne typically makes it to about Thanksgiving before the turf season ends.

A long summer harness racing meet concluded Sept. 24. It took four days for the Thoroughbred surface to be moved back onto the base and one more day of working the track before training for this meet could begin.

“The surface is in good shape,” Plever said.

There are several new faces at the start of the meet among jockeys and trainers. Plever mentioned Gerald Brooks, who has been based at Presque Isle, as a new Hawthorne trainer who could be active, at least early in this meet. Brooks has horses entered in two races Friday.

Hawthorne moved standard first post to 3:10 Central last year and will maintain that schedule through December, when post time goes to 12:55. By then, it will be getting dark very early in Chicago – but for now, extra money means there is a little more light shining at Hawthorne.