10/02/2013 3:49PM

Hawthorne opening weekend offers a night card


STICKNEY, Ill. – If everything really is relative, Hawthorne Race Course, barring the absolutely catastrophic, is in for at least a decent fall-winter race meet compared to last year.

Not long after it began, Hawthorne’s 2012 fall-winter season was overrun by a serious outbreak of the equine herpesvirus, known as EHV-1. The meet continued with the track under quarantine as the virus ran its course. Seven horses died, the meeting left in tatters.

Skies over Hawthorne haven’t entirely cleared. Another year has so far passed without Illinois state government granting racetracks permission to install slot machines. And last week, the Illinois Racing Board said it might not have funding to regulate a full racing season in 2014. If the legislature doesn’t soon renew the state’s account-wagering law – a major source of IRB funding – 2014 could have a skeleton schedule. In the worst-case scenario, Hawthorne would abandon its spring meet.

While new racing secretary Allan Plever hopes to add to his horse population as other regional venues close through the fall, Hawthorne president Tim Carey worries about losing outfits in November and December if the legislature fails to act on slots or account wagering during its fall veto session that begins Oct. 22.

“People could leave if they think there won’t be racing in Chicago again until May,” Carey said.

Hawthorne is scheduled to race five days per week during a 61-day meet that ends Dec. 29. Few tracks race more than four-day weeks any more, and Hawthorne can petition the Illinois Racing Board to drop days if its races don’t adequately fill. The track averaged a solid 8.57 starters per race despite its troubled season last fall.

“We’re going to have to take things day by day,” Carey said.

Tasked with filling all those races is Plever, who returns to racing-office work after serving as a jockey’s agent in Chicago. Friday’s nine-race opening card drew 86 entrants, and a good third-level allowance filled. Plever knows things will get tougher.

“Ask me Dec. 25 how we’re filling,” he said.

Plever changed some parts of the standard Hawthorne condition book (Hawthorne die-hards will note subtle differences opening day) such as adding shorter sprints for lower-level horses and offering a greater number of turf sprints. Hawthorne, Plever said, plans to distribute about $150,000 in daily overnight purses.

In a change from recent tradition, opening weekend does not include the meet’s best race, the Hawthorne Gold Cup. Hawthorne was notably left out of Churchill Downs’s Kentucky Derby qualifying system, and this spring switched the Illinois Derby from four weeks before the Kentucky Derby to two weeks out. The tinkering didn’t stop there. The $350,000 Gold Cup, positioned as a supposed Breeders’ Cup Classic prep, has been moved to Nov. 30. The $500,000 Clark Handicap, a race in the same division, will be run one day earlier at Churchill.

“I think the fact we were forced to change things in the spring made us take a look at the whole stakes schedule,” Carey said.

Anchoring opening weekend is the Grade 3 Hawthorne Derby, which will be part of a night-racing card Saturday. Hawthorne hosted two night cards in 2010 (both evenings were negatively impacted by rain) but hasn’t raced in the evening since.

Prominent on the Hawthorne backstretch is a long overdue repaving of the main road through the stables, and Hawthorne’s dirt track also has undergone major maintenance. The racing surface was removed and the track’s base inspected since horses last raced here, and the surface, many horsemen said this week, seems less deep and laboring than some autumns. Local outfits trickling back into the stables surely have plenty of starters lined up who favor Hawthorne’s dirt surface over Arlington’s Polytrack.

Chief among those is Midwest Thoroughbreds Inc., whose Chicago trainer, Roger Brueggemann, has become a Hawthorne kingpin in recent seasons. That shouldn’t change this fall: One local jockey’s agent said he was fifth in line to visit Brueggemann early one morning last week. Also worth watching among the training set is Clay Brinson, who won at a 30 percent clip last fall.

The jockey colony includes Emmanuel Esquivel, the apprentice rider coming off a surprise riding title at Arlington; Alex Canchari, who similarly surprised winning the fall 2012 Hawthorne title; and Tim Thornton, settled into a good rhythm again after a summer injury.