02/15/2012 3:42PM

Hawthorne: Purses up, barn area crowded as spring meet opens


STICKNEY, Ill – There’s a lot riding on the 2012 winter-spring meet that begins Friday at Hawthorne Race Course. Everything, perhaps.

The 2011 spring meet here paid out average daily purses of just $119,000, a pittance in today’s slots-fueled racing world. Field size was dismal, the weather was bad, and handle lacked luster. At the annual Illinois Racing Board dates awards meeting last summer, the viability of a winter-spring meet in Chicago, which Hawthorne inherited when neighboring Sportsman’s Park went belly-up, was openly questioned.

But the playing field appears to have tilted in Hawthorne’s favor. The August 2011 release to the Illinois racing industry of more than $140 million in so-called impact fees collected for years from four Illinois casinos but held in escrow during a protracted legal challenge has provided a significant boost to purses. Friday’s nine-race program offers about $186,000 in purses before incentives for larger fields are paid out, and Hawthorne assistant general manager Jim Miller said the track expects to pay average daily purses between $190,000 and $200,000 during the 41-day meet. Those numbers don’t include stakes purses, which also have come back after falling in 2011. The Grade 3 Illinois Derby suffered a purse cut to $300,000 last spring but returns as a $500,000 race on April 7. The Grade 3, $200,000 Sixty Sails reappears on April 21 after being dropped from the 2011 schedule.

“There’s no doubt this is an important meet for us,” said Miller. “But we’re very optimistic.”

And so far, even more stars have aligned for Hawthorne this year. Chicago is in the midst of the mildest winter in recent history. There have been only two snowfalls of any consequence, and Hawthorne, which keeps its track open during the January dark period, lost only two days of training. Moreover, the horse population remained higher during the 2012 downtime than has been the case in recent seasons. Miller said he expects the local equine population, which wasn’t even at 1,000 a year ago, to exceed 1,300 when a tally is taken Thursday. The estimate appears to be in the right ballpark: A tour of the rugged Hawthorne backstretch Wednesday morning found only a couple barns with more than half their stalls sitting empty.

“It’s been really busy around here,” said trainer Joel Berndt, who should have a couple dozen horses ready to run in coming weeks.

Berndt is expected to be a major early-season player, but the strong favorite to take down the training title at the meet has to be Roger Brueggemann. Brueggemann, who easily topped the fall-winter meet trainer standings, sent a string to Oaklawn in 2011, but kept all his horses here this winter. There are more than 60 housed in Barn A – many for the country’s leading owner, Midwest Thoroughbreds – and Brueggemann has long been effective bringing horses back from a winter break.

Florent Geroux, who won his first riding title here in the fall thanks in great part to support from Midwest, has returned from a tough stint at Oaklawn and should hit the ground running. Cisco Torres had a torrid December and figures to land plenty of live mounts.

The February racing week starts out short, Friday through Sunday, before Wednesdays are added in March and April. Bettors of the smaller-bankroll variety will be pleased to find the introduction of a 50-cent base bet on pick 4 wagers, and those attending the track can choose to receive a free Daily Racing Form with their $3.50 admission, a new Hawthorne feature. The track also plans to debut a mobile phone application during the meet, a nod to a future that, for now at least, looks considerably brighter.