02/03/2016 12:43PM

Hawthorne Harness: Horsemen mull over options as meet concludes

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Maywood Park
Leading driver Casey Leonard will do some driving at Hoosier Park while Hawthorne is closed.

A brief but successful Suburban Downs winter harness meeting at Hawthorne Race Course that is scheduled to end Saturday night has raised expectations for the track’s extended summer meeting that will begin May 6.

After a seven-year absence the pacers and trotters resumed racing at the suburban Chicago venue on Jan. 8. Wednesday through Sunday programs were held for the next four weeks.

“Overall, I’m very happy,” said Racing Secretary Pete Hanley. “The horsemen have been super cooperative. I was a little apprehensive in a new situation but it has turned out very well. I hope that momentum we’ve picked up as this has gone along will continue to roll right into that summer meet.”

The Illinois Racing Board’s decision not to award 2016 dates to the bankrupt sister harness tracks, Balmoral Park and Maywood Park, had the ultimate effect of putting them out of business permanently.

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As a result, when the Racing Board awarded dates to Hawthorne it became the only pari-mutuel standardbred venue in the state (except for Springfield and DuQuoin, which both conduct a State Fair meeting for a few days every summer).

However, Hawthorne also has thoroughbred racing--with meetings scheduled for March 7-April 30 and Oct. 7-Dec. 26--and during those time-frames, sulkies will be conspicuous by their absence from the state. The harness horses had raced at least 11 months yearly from 1968 through 2015 (except those years when the contract issues delayed the start of meetings).

This shrinkage of the schedule to six months raises the question: Will the trainers and drivers who are leaving this weekend be back for the May 6-Sept. 25 Suburban Downs meeting?

Many have indicated that they want to return.

Heading the list is leading driver Casey Leonard, whose father, Terry Leonard, was leading the trainer standings and was flaunting a 33% winning percentage going into the last week of the meeting.

“I’m going from here to Hoosier Park,” Casey said. “I’ll drive a little bit there, not a whole lot. My dad has about 20 horses at his farm in Indiana. I’ll break some babies and get them ready to go and then I’ll come back here. I’ve got a home and a family here, a son who is 8-years-old. I’m not going to relocate.”

Trainer Donna Holt, who had 10 horses at the winter meeting, liked the five-night schedule much better than the weekend racing at Maywood and Balmoral that forced trainers to go to elsewhere in pursuit of weekday purse money.

“We’d ship to Indiana and get home at midnight or 1 o’clock in the morning and we were doing some racing during the day on the fair circuit, too,” she said. “Here they gave us a nice barn and a nice place on the grounds to stay. We’re coming back in May. I have not heard anybody complain.”

Long-time Chicago circuit trainer Hosea Williams, who stabled at Maywood before the state’s first pari-mutuel track closed in October, and veteran driver Brian Carpenter also were happy campers.

“It has worked out real well,” Williams said. “The handle has been great. Most of the trainers, owners and grooms seem to be real pleased here. I had six horses here, and one of them is a nice 2-year-old filly, Lexington Lady. I’ll lay them up for a while, take a little vacation and then get ready for when we come back.”

Carpenter said: “I raced here years and years, going back to the ‘80s and ‘90s when they had the double-headers in January and February, and I looked forward to coming back. I can’t wait to get back this summer.”

Driver Kyle Wilfong liked returning to Hawthorne where he got his start, but he was uncertain as to the extent of his participation at the summer meeting.

“I drove my first race here as an amateur, I qualified a lot of horses here and I trained a lot of horses here,” Wilfong said. “Now, I’ll be going to Indiana. I live about 10 minutes from Hoosier. I’ll race a little at Miami Valley (in southwestern Ohio) and then be at Hoosier.

“This summer I’ll play it by ear. I’ll be back to drive at Hawthorne every Sunday for sure, and I plan on making some other appearances with my own horses for stakes races. I think the majority of guys who have been here (for the winter meeting) will be back.”

When the meeting ends Assistant Racing Secretary Tom Kelley will go on a recruiting expedition to fortify the nucleus.

“I’ll be taking a road trip, going to California, Delaware, Michigan and Florida to see who’s interested and tell them all that we have to offer,” said Kelley, who formerly headed the publicity departments at Balmoral and Maywood.

“We’ve already gotten commitments for the summer. Some trainers are going to taking their main strings somewhere else but also will be sending strings here.”

The winter meeting began two days later than scheduled to give trainers additional time to qualify horses after the thoroughbred meeting ended Jan. 2 and the track underwent a makeover.

Because there were no problems in the aftermath of the conversion process none are anticipated when it will be done again in May.

“The first two nights it was muddy but other than that we’ve had a nice cushion every night,” Wilfong said.

Hanley used creativity in writing his races and got a good response from both horsemen and bettors.

The Thursday programs had six or seven races for trotters and the Friday cards showcased fillies and mares.

“The naysayers who said people wouldn’t bet a card mainly of trotters were wrong,” Kelley said. “We had a Thursday night handle of $850,000.”

[DRF HARNESS LIVE: Real-time insights from the DRF Harness team this Saturday at 6:35 p.m.]

Overall handle also has exceeded expectations, according to Director of Publicity/Racing Analyst Jim Miller. He cited four nights of wagering in excess of $1 million during the last two weekends in January.

“Based on the fact that you never know what kind of weather you will be dealing with in the Chicago area this time of year and the fact we did not know how the horse population would be, we went into this hoping to be somewhere in the $800,000 ballpark when it came to nightly handle,” Miller said.

“We have far exceeded those goals.”