09/29/2011 3:22PM

Hawthorne: Aesthetics aside, things look rosy

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STICKNEY, Ill. – Grape vines bearing fruit climb nearly every fence surrounding the vast Arlington Park property. In turf races there, the horses disappear behind what the track announcer often calls “the little woods,” a reference to the Longchamp course in Paris.

The highbrow European atmosphere hardly emanates from Hawthorne Race Course. Thursday morning, after days of rain, the mud rutted deep along the dirt roads and paths criss-crossing the gritty backstretch here. Deep, winterized barns loomed dark as ever, a tree line on the backstretch’s south side barely keeping at bay the area’s heavy industry.

But the early autumn passage from Arlington to Hawthorne is a rite of Chicago racing, and between the rails at this course the main track is brown dirt, not gray Polytrack, a change that many bettors and horsemen profoundly relish.

And there’s another appealing thing at Hawthorne this fall – money. The August release of impact fees collected for years from four Illinois casinos but kept from distribution by legal challenges to the legislation that started the flow of funds might breathe new life into the Hawthorne product.

Hawthorne plans to offer basic daily overnight purses of $185,000 this fall compared to $129,000 last year. In recent seasons, Hawthorne fought to tamp down a serious purse overpayment – when money earned from handle can’t keep up with purses paid – but thanks to the impact-fee infusion, the purse account starts this fall in balance. Illinois-bred maidens run for a respectable $33,000 on opening day. A second-level allowance race is worth more than $36,000.

The additional money has spurred Hawthorne to return Sundays into its fall schedule, and race weeks are back to five days after dropping to four last year. The Hawthorne Gold Cup purse was halved to $250,000 in 2010, but has been returned to its traditional $500,000 level.

“We’re anticipating a great meet,” said track president Tim Carey.

Jim Miller, assistant general manager here, said 1,950 stalls had been allotted for a meeting that runs through Dec. 31, and that with Arlington closing its backstretch Friday, perhaps 1,900 stalls would house horses by opening day. A walk through the stables confirmed a high occupancy rate, and many of the empties are being held for an influx of horsemen from Hoosier Park in Indiana when that meet ends later in the fall.

“The best thing for us, a lot of the horsemen that would usually leave for Florida are going to say the whole meet,” said Miller, mentioning trainers like Dale Bennett and Larry Rivelli, the latter having topped the standings at the Arlington meeting. Mike Stidham has 35 stalls after pulling out of Chicago following the Arlington meet in 2010. Scott Becker, second to Rivelli among Arlington 2011 trainers, has 40 stalls.

Nine races on opening day attracted 92 entries, and even with less prize money to give away a year ago, Hawthorne’s still averaged 9.77 starters per race.

The track surface here in the fall often starts out deep and tiring, but all the recent precipitation should have the dirt tight enough opening weekend. After four years of summers on Polytrack, local horsemen have learned much about the transition to dirt in the fall, a transition that might go more smoothly for Arlington horses this year.

“I think it’s going to be easier coming over here,” said trainer Hugh Robertson. “They kept the Polytrack so much deeper this year. The last couple years it had been so fast, they came over here and got tired.”

One horse seen galloping over the Hawthorne dirt Thursday was Giant Oak, one of two Chris Block-trained horses – along with Mister Marti Gras – likely to start Oct. 8 in the Gold Cup. Expected to ship in for the race is Todd Pletcher-trained Rule.

The jockey colony includes Jozbin Santana, who challenged for top honors at Arlington, as well as defending fall riding champ Tanner Riggs. Tim Thornton always does well at Hawthorne, Chris Emigh is back after suffering an injury in Indiana, and Seth Martinez returns to action after hurting himself near the end of the Arlington meet.