03/09/2016 3:40PM

Hawthorne opens bare-bones meet with 20 days, no stakes


STICKNEY, Ill. – Hawthorne Race Course on Friday opens its spring Thoroughbred race meeting – what’s left of it.

This is the fourth meet Hawthorne has hosted since Illinois tracks began funding purses strictly from betting handle. All the neighboring states – Minnesota, Indiana, and Iowa – pay purses subsidized by other revenue streams. Meet by meet, Hawthorne has lost ground, and this spring’s season has been stripped to the bone.

The meet spans just 20 race days, down from 31 in 2015 and 37 in 2014. There’s racing Friday and Saturday for four weekends and then a trio of three-day race weeks before the action moves across town to Arlington. For lack of purse money, what remained of the stakes schedule – primarily the Illinois Derby but also the Sixty Sails, a historic spring dirt-route race for older fillies – has been eliminated. Even without paying stakes purses, overnight purse distribution is expected to average less than $100,000 daily, according to racing secretary Allen Plever.

More than 600 horses wintered at Hawthorne during the Chicago dark period a couple years ago, but Plever said only about 300 stayed put this time. And this winter, those horses were confined to barns from the first week of January until mid-February while Hawthorne hosted a harness racing meet. Plever went so far as to open one of the barns with a wide shed row for jogging during the downtime, but most horses stabled here didn’t resume training until Feb. 15.

That’s why all nine races on the Friday card will be contested at five or 5 1/2 furlongs. The locals aren’t yet fit to go farther.

“We’re going to slowly stretch them out,” Plever said. “Thankfully, it was a mild winter by Chicago standards.”

Friday’s card filled pretty well, with 73 entrants in nine races, but without shippers from Fairmount Park, entries would have been in trouble. Twenty-seven of those 73 entrants posted their most recent timed workout at Fairmount, where training went along unabated through a warm winter. And where Hawthorne and Fairmount have overlapped meets in the past, the St. Louis-area track doesn’t open this year until Hawthorne has finished.

There also are horses in from Fair Grounds and Oaklawn, and Chicago-based outfits that struggled to compete at those venues figure to increase their pace of Hawthorne participation in the coming weeks. The mild winter and recent rain also has Plever hopeful that Hawthorne can commence turf racing “sooner than you think.”

Trainers Manny Perez and Scott Becker should be very active throughout the meet, as will John Haran, who is putting back together a large Hawthorne string after stabling at Oaklawn and Fair Grounds. Handicappers early at this meet should prize fit horses coming from venues other than Hawthorne over horses who showed competitive form during the fall-winter meeting here. Moreover, the racing surface in the spring is not the racing surface in the fall, and there often is not great overlap between the sets of horses who fit Hawthorne races in November and December and those who will in March and April.