10/01/2014 12:44PM

Hawthorne meet opens with full fields, small purses


STICKNEY, Ill. – Forecast what you will for the 51-day Hawthorne fall-winter meet that starts Friday, but at least expect improvements upon the 2014 winter-spring meet at the urban track on the Stickney-Cicero border just southwest of Chicago proper.

Horse racing and polar vortices do not mix, and when the calendar rolled into 2014 and Chicago fell into the deepest freeze in recent memory, Illinois racing also was imperiled by an unresolved legislative issue involving account wagering. Horses were sparse this past spring – the meet barely averaged seven runners per race – and betting fell about 13 percent compared with an anemic 2013 spring.

But in the longer history of Chicago racing, spring belonged to the National Jockey Club at Sportsman’s Park, which turned its dates over to Hawthorne when Sportsman’s and the NJC went under. Fall dates traditionally are Hawthorne’s, and despite a purse level dwarfed by big-money racinos, Hawthorne has hopes this autumn.

“I’ve given out over 1,850 stalls, so I’m pretty well stocked,” said racing secretary Allen Plever. “I do think we’ll fill well the first few weeks.”

The nine-race opening-day card drew 93 entrants. Entries taken Wednesday for Saturday closed before noon. The Hawthorne fall race week is down from five days to four, and the track hopes that field size will rise accordingly, at least until outfits start leaving for winter quarters.

“I got about six weeks to work on it before I have some defections,” Plever said.

Purses are less than robust. Open maiden races are worth just $20,000; open $5,000 claimers run for $8,200. Assistant general manager John Walsh said overnight purses will average about $130,000 per day, down from $145,000 last fall. The track has run out of casino impact-fee money that subsidized purses through the spring, and slow business at the spring meet generated low revenue for this fall.

“I don’t want to have to cut purses,” Walsh said. “Hopefully, we can raise them at some point.”

First post is generally set for 1:45 Central as Hawthorne tries to hit a sweet spot at the end of East Coast racing and the start of California racing. “We want to get right in between,” Walsh said.

Hawthorne has made changes to its wagering menu, most significantly lowering the minimum base bets on all exotic wagers except daily doubles and superfectas to 20 cents. Superfecta pools that aren’t hit carry over race to race, and there are partial-pool carryovers for unclaimed pick fours and pick fives.

Plever said there are about 10 trainers new to the meet. Roger Brueggemann, the leading trainer the last three falls, is not one of them. Mike Reavis also figures to come out running. Jockeys Chris Emigh, Manny Esquivel, Rosemary Homeister, Israel Ocampo, and Tim Thornton should have brisk business as long as they want to stick out the winter.