10/03/2012 4:34PM

Hawthorne opens with its biggest weekend

Debra A. Roma
Alternation arrived in Chicago on a van from Remington Park last Friday.

STICKNEY, Ill. – Deep in the quiet heart of one of Hawthorne’s heavily winterized barns Wednesday morning, Donnie Von Hemel turned the corner of a shed row leading a rich bay horse on a shank. The sight was unexpected. Von Hemel has recently summered at Arlington but doesn’t stick around Chicago in the fall. He has come this week to Hawthorne because Alternation races Saturday in the Grade 2, $500,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup. The Gold Cup headlines opening weekend of Hawthorne’s fall-winter meet. It headlines, in fact, the entire meeting. And by the time the Hawthorne season has settled into a more regular rhythm of lower-level claimers and Illinois-breds, Von Hemel and the likes of Alternation will be long gone.

But Hawthorne, which launches a 62-day meet Friday, never has been about boutique racing. This is a place for hard-hat horses, and there are plenty whose connections willingly brave the Chicago winter. Hawthorne averaged 8.6 starters per race during its meet a year ago and expects to draw a similar number this season, according to the track’s assistant general manager, Jim Miller. One hundred and two horses were entered on Friday’s opening nine-race card, with fields of 12 or more in five races.

Purses for maiden and allowance runners are down as much as $3,000 per race compared with 2011, as Hawthorne attempts to judiciously spread out its share of millions of dollars of casino impact-fee funds shifted to the state’s racing industry in August 2011, but Hawthorne has held the line on lower-level purses, and still expects to pay out about $175,000 per day, not including stakes races.

“We’re trying to be a little bit conservative with that impact-fee money,” said Miller. “We kept the bottom purses the same because those are our bread-and-butter races. We’re trying to find the right mix.”

By far the best racing of the season comes opening weekend, with the Gold Cup supported by the $100,000 Indian Maid and the $100,000 Carey Memorial. Both Saturday secondary features will be contested over a turf course that appears to be in excellent shape: The question, as always, is how long the weather stays warm enough to use the grass. Romacaca headlines the Indian Maid, while Willcox Inn and Suntracer are the best horses in the Carey. Willcox Inn also was cross-entered in the Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland.

The Gold Cup drew seven entrants, with Cease, Nates Mineshaft, and Mister Marti Gras the leading rivals to Alternation, the likely favorite under Luis Quinonez. The others in the 1 1/4-mile dirt race are Eldaafer, Pool Play, and Fly Lexis Fly.

Alternation arrived in Chicago on a van from Remington Park last Friday and galloped over the main track several days before working a half-mile Monday morning. Breezing just after the track opened at 6 o’clock, Alternation was timed in a bullet 47.60 seconds under Quinones.

“He worked very well,” said Von Hemel, who hopes to use the Gold Cup as a stepping-stone to the Breeders’ Cup Classic. “It’s an 800-mile van ride from Remington, and I wanted to get him up here in plenty of time. Give him a chance to get over the trip, train on this track, and school in the paddock a few times.”

Cease finished third in the 2011 Gold Cup, and he was a solid third Sept. 1 in the Woodward Stakes. Nates Mineshaft, the New Orleans Handicap winner this past spring, is set to make his first start since June 16. Mister Marti Gras finished fourth in the 2011 Gold Cup.

Following opening weekend, Hawthorne has reconfigured its stakes schedule, spreading six Illinois-bred races usually run on one card over three different weekends. The Grade 3 Hawthorne Derby on Oct. 13 is the last open stakes of a meeting that ends Dec. 31.

On a day-to-day basis, trainer Roger Brueggemann should be in for an excellent run. Brueggemann, training mainly for Midwest Thoroughbreds – the country’s leading owner by wins – easily captured the 2011 fall-winter training title, and Brueggemann said nearly all the 80 horses he has stabled at Hawthorne are fit and ready to roll. Midwest leased the Hawthorne track and stabling quarters over the summer, and most of Brueggemann’s stock has been training here while other Chicago horses were at Arlington. That could be an advantage because the Hawthorne track surface, while said by many horsemen to be less tiring than some years, remains deep and demanding.

Florent Geroux won the 2011 fall-winter riding title but may have stiffer competition this time round with Arlington’s leading rider, Cisco Torres, and Rosemary Homeister Jr. joining the local colony.