01/04/2016 2:50PM

Handle drops sharply at Hawthorne meet


STICKNEY, Ill. – Betting handle at Hawthorne tumbled again during the fall-winter racing season that ended Saturday, with all-sources average daily handle down more than 20 percent after a rebound season a year ago.

Hawthorne raced 49 complete programs (one card was canceled after a single race) during a meet that began Oct. 2 and averaged just $1,680,760 per card in all-sources handle, a decrease of about 22 percent from the previous fall-winter meet, a 51-day season that averaged $2,145,486.

Gross handle for the season fell by $27 million, from $109.4 million to $82.4 million, and since 2009, another fall-winter meet with 49 cards, gross handle has declined by roughly $80 million, a somewhat staggering drop that highlights the troubled nature of the Illinois racing industry.

Hawthorne’s purses at this meet were the track’s lowest in recent history, and the horse population was down compared to previous seasons. Average field size fell to 7.84 starters per race from 8.21 a year ago despite an increase in the number of turf races run from 51 last season to 64 this season. Turf races averaged 8.94 starters, so the decline on dirt was even sharper. Average field size in December fell to just 7.52 starters, and too many fields were populated with impossibly overmatched runners, contributing to favorites winning 41 percent of the meet’s races.

Scott Becker easily was the leading trainer with 29 wins, while Manny Perez, having easily a career-best run, won 20 races and led Hawthorne in December and January wins with 13.

Chris Emigh, riding first call for Becker, easily won the riding title with 65 winners. Emigh started strong, diversified his business as his momentum picked up, and ended strong, winning with five of his 14 mounts on the two days of January racing. Bill Stiritz, for whom Becker is a private trainer, cruised to the owners’ title with 31 winners.

Hawthorne this week is converting the racing surface to ready for a harness meet that begins Friday and runs through Feb. 6. There’s no Thoroughbred training until the dirt cushion is laid back down following the harness meet, and horses wintering here who comprise the bulk of early-season fields might struggle to get fit again when the spring season opens March 11.