05/11/2017 2:16PM

Hawthorne Harness: Harness Racing returns to Illinois Thursday

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Hawthorne will race its harness meet through September 24.

Chicago harness racing will emerge from its deep sleep after more than five months of hibernation on Thursday night when Hawthorne Race Course will begin a 50-night meeting that will continue through Sept. 24.

Not since the late 1940s has the Chicago metropolitan area had so few harness racing programs.

Starting in the late 1960s and continuing through 2015, harness racing was a sport for all seasons in the Windy City and most of those years there was racing for 12 months. In 1995 there was an Illinois record total of 516 programs at Hawthorne, Maywood Park, Balmoral Park and Sportsman’s Park.

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That was then. Now, Maywood, Balmoral and Sportsman’s have joined Washington Park and Aurora Downs in the Chicago harness racing history books, leaving the latecomer Hawthorne as the only standardbred game in town.

Hawthorne’s thoroughbred history dates back to 1891 but it didn’t introduce harness racing until 1970. Since that time there have been years when the standardbred meeting was put in mothballs, but after the bankrupt sister tracks—Maywood and Balmoral—were forced out of business, the sulkies returned last year for the first time since 2008 for a month-long winter meeting that began in early January and a May 11-Sept. 24 summer meeting.

This year the winter meeting was abandoned—enabling the thoroughbreds to train on the track in preparation for their spring meeting—so it remains to be seen if the new race secretary, Robin Schadt, will have problems luring trainers back to enter horses for the Thursday through Sunday programs.

Both Schadt, who has replaced Pete Hanley as race secretary, and Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association President Marty Engel, have high hopes.

“We’re very optimistic about this meet,” Engel said. “We assume we will fill four nights a week. The purses are going to be high enough so we will be able to attract some of the better horses from Hoosier Park and other surrounding tracks.

“Robin has done a super job in writing overnight races and a claiming series for several levels. She knows Illinois-breds and she has gone to great lengths to analyze what we need. She is trying to write races so everyone has an opportunity to race and get purse money.”

Schadt knows the standardbred business inside out. She has just completed her third year as director of racing at Cal Expo and she worked as an assistant to former United States Trotting Association President Phil Langley in the late 1980s and early 1990s when he was the director of racing at Sportsman’s. She also had a stint in the Hawthorne racing office under Bob Larry in the early 1990s.

Then, for 13 years, Schadt was the trainer for Odds on Racing, managing a state-of-the-art training facility for 100 horses near Balmoral. In addition, she headed the breeding arm of the operation.

“I have a pretty good feel for the entire industry in Illinois, and I believe it’s going to be a healthy meet,” Schadt said.

“I project overnight purses of $65,000 a day and we’ll have a stakes program estimated at $3 million. I look forward to having 1,000 horses (racing) during the meet. Most people will be shipping in as opposed to stabling on the grounds.

“Our condition book will have more allowance races for Illinois-bred horses and more overnights for 2-year-olds. We’re not going to try to get 10 horses in those overnight races for 2-year-olds; we will consider eight horses a full field. It will help the young horses. We need to find a way to protect those horses and increase their value so they stick around and race in the future. We need that foundation of Illinois-breds.”

Not having to pay purses over the course of a winter meeting means there will be more money available for the summer meeting, but the unique purse recapture provision in the 1995 Illinois law that permits full-card simulcasting from other states continues to have a huge negative impact. Recapture is triggered when the total live Illinois handle in a calendar year is less than 75% of the total handle in 1994, the last year before the advent of the out-of-state simulcasts. It allows the tracks to reclaim 2% of the live handle that is lost at on-track and at the off-track betting outlets.

As live handle steadily dipped, recapture quickly evolved into the equivalent of a welfare program for the tracks subsidized by the horsemen’s purse accounts.

“Recapture will kick in but because of the fact that the thoroughbreds are also racing at Hawthorne in the spring and fall we share the expense with them,” Engel said. “Our share is about $2.5 million.

“The Carey family (which has owned Hawthorne since 1909) has been generous in allowing us to defer some of the recapture to guarantee purses. There is a formula. It could end up being 20% of what we owe.”

Balmoral annually lured some of the best horses in North America for the 10 lucrative and prestigious American-National races for pacers and trotters that it inherited from Sportsman’s and Maywood’s Windy City Pace and Galt Trot also brought in high profile standardbreds, but at Hawthorne races of that magnitude while be conspicuous by their absence again this year.

There are no open company races on the Hawthorne stakes schedule, which puts all of its golden eggs in the Illinois-bred basket. The main event on the calendar is the Night of Champions on Sept. 23 highlighted by 11 series final races for state-bred pacers and trotters. Total purse money for the 11 races is expected to be comparable to last year’s $850,000 and four of the races are predicted to have purses ranging from $105,000 to $125,000.

The stakes program has a point system and the horses with the most points in earlier legs of the series will advance to the Night of Champions finals and the eight consolation races the next night that will be the highlight of the final program of the meeting.

Defending champion trainer Nelson Willis will be back as will Casey Leonard, the 2016 champion driver, and Engel believes that some other former standouts on the Chicago circuit who moved to Indiana and Ohio during the off-season will be making frequent appearances.

Heading the list of newcomers is one of the top trainers at the Cal Expo meeting, Lino Pacheco, who Schadt persuaded to follow her to Hawthorne.