12/29/2015 10:07PM

Harness: Hawthorne the new standardbred home in Illinois


Hawthorne Race Course is back on the harness racing map.

The pacers and trotters are returning after a six-year absence for the Jan. 8-Feb. 6 Suburban Downs winter meeting. After the opening weekend, the schedule calls for nightly 10-race programs from Wednesday through Sunday.

Immediately following the end of this winter meeting, the thoroughbreds will move back to Hawthorne and the track surface will be redone for their March 7-April 30 spring meeting.

Another makeover will take place after the thoroughbred meeting hits the finish line and the standardbreds will return for a May 6-Sept. 25 Suburban Downs summer meeting, with five nights of racing weekly.

An Oct. 7-Dec. 26 thoroughbred meeting will end Hawthorne’s racing year.

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During the six months in which the Standardbreds will be absent from Hawthorne there will be no harness racing on the Chicago circuit.

This is a major development because from 1968 through 2014 there were at least 11 months of racing yearly (except those years when the start of the season was delayed by a work stoppage).

The reason for the shrinkage is the Illinois Racing Board’s decision to wipe the bankrupt sister tracks, Balmoral Park and Maywood Park, off the map in 2016. They were forced into bankruptcy late in 2014 because of a $78.1 million judgment against them and it appears they are history.

Balmoral’s 2016 request to race Friday and Saturday nights from Jan. 2 through Nov. 3 and Maywood’s request to race on the same nights from Nov. 4-Dec. 31 were rejected by the board in favor of the schedule proposed by Hawthorne as part of a revenue sharing arrangement benefiting the Arlington International Racecourse thoroughbred meeting.

Hawthorne is the nation’s fifth oldest thoroughbred track—with a sometimes-interrupted history dating back to May, 1891—but it wasn’t until the spring of 1970 that it held its first harness meeting.

At that time the Chicago area had five other harness tracks—Sportsman’s Park, Washington Park, Maywood, Balmoral and Aurora Downs.

Washington was never rebuilt after being destroyed by fire in 1977; Aurora (which had been renamed Fox Fields) lost its license in 1981 and became an industrial park; and after being the Midwest’s No. 1 harness track for 49 years Sportsman’s got a divorce from the standardbred sport in 1998 to have an ill-fated fling with fast car racing and now is a liquor, beer and wine warehouse.

Hawthorne is located one block away from the site of the old Sportsman Park and track President Tim Carey is hoping that it’s off-the-expressway location in a near south suburb that abuts Chicago will bring back many of the harness racing fans who showed up at Sportsman’s.

When Hawthorne last held a standardbred meeting in 2008 for 39 summer nights it averaged $92,170 in purses, $290,893 in handle on Illinois races, $550,654 in handle on out-of-state races and $832,497 in out-of-state handle on Illinois races.

However, that was before the arrival of video gaming machines at Illinois taverns and restaurants and the opening of the state’s most successful casino in Des Plaines, a suburb just north of Chicago.

The Illinois horse population also has dwindled significantly and that’s attributable to the fact that the purses offered by tracks in the state suffer when compared with those in other states, such as Indiana, which has slot machines to funnel money into purse accounts.

Tom Kelley, the publicist at Balmoral and Maywood who is moving to Hawthorne as Director of Harness Operations, Assistant Race Secretary and Association Steward, said that most of the horses who competed at the Balmoral meeting that ended Dec. 26 are coming to Hawthorne.

“Almost 500 horses will be on the grounds and all the farms around here are completely full,” said Kelley. “Joe Anderson (the dominant trainer on the Chicago circuit before he migrated to the East Coast) is coming back from Pennsylvania and Ken Rucker (another brand name trainer) is coming back from Maryland.”

Race Secretary Pete Hanley, who is making his debut as a Hawthorne employee, also is optimistic.

“It seems like Tom knows everybody all over the place and I’ve also got great contacts from at a lot of different tracks that I’ve worked at—Foxboro, Hinsdale, Brandywine, Running Aces and now in Maryland at Rosecroft. My wife and I just bought a house outside Detroit and her uncle owned Sports Creek so I have contacts in Michigan, too, and I’m expecting ship-ins from there.

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“I was association steward at both Maywood and Balmoral last summer and got to know who’s who and what’s what, and then the Hawthorne job came up.”

Hanley will continue serving as Director of Racing and Race Secretary at Rosecroft where he has worked since the fall of 2013.

“At Rosecroft we race from March until early June and start again in September and race until the week before Christmas, so there’s only a month overlap in May and a week or so in September,” he said. “When I was an associate judge at Running Aces in 2012, 2013 and 2014 I did something like this so I know what’s involved and I’ve gotten the okay from both tracks (Rosecroft and Hawthorne).”

At Hawthorne’s winter meeting, Hanley plans to offer nightly purses of $70,000, a substantial increase from the pot of $45,950 for the 12 races on closing night at Balmoral, and for the summer meeting he is projecting total purses of between $1.2 million and $1.5 million.

“When I’m there in January, I’ll try to come up with a program for the summer meet that will entice some people to come stay with us,” he said. “There will be a pretty extensive stakes schedule for Illinois-bred horses.”

Hanley has scheduled six series for the winter meeting–the Whizzer White Pacing Series, the Suburban Downs Pacing Series, the Ohyouprettything Pacing Series, the Pretty Direct Pacing Series, the Dygert Trotting Series and the Fox Valley Flan Trotting Series.

Traditionally, the Dygert Trot and Suburban Downs Pacing Derby were Hawthorne’s two nationally-important events and they may reappear when Hanley drafts his summer stakes schedule.

However, the Chicago circuit has lost many of the nation’s top races—most notably the 10 American-National races that Balmoral inherited when Sportsman’s closed and Maywood’s tradition-rich main events, the Windy City Pace and Galt Trot.

“It’s sad that Maywood closed (in October) and now Balmoral is closing, but Hawthorne has shown a commitment to Illinois racing in agreeing to host a January meet,” said Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association President Dave McCaffrey. “There’s a twinge of excitement among horsemen and we’re hoping to have a good product for players to bet on—full fields, stakes series, top drivers.”

In Carey’s opinion, “This is a pivotal year for Illinois racing.”

“Racing tracks are closing, competition from other states has never been stronger and there is no definitive timeline for gaming reform in Illinois that would truly allow us to compete on the national racing circuit,” said the president of family-owned Hawthorne.

“We have an obligation to the people who work in this sport and we’re doing all we can to keep it going.”