01/12/2013 3:30PM

Hawthorne: Quarantine's end in sight, but horsemen still stuck in Chicago


STICKNEY, Ill. – Barring another case of equine herpesvirus late Saturday, Hawthorne Race Course will emerge from a state-mandated disease quarantine at 6 a.m. Sunday.

The quarantine has been in place since late October, and with its expiration, Hawthorne is one major formal step closer to emerging from a herpesvirus outbreak that led to the death of seven horses and impacted the track’s fall-winter meet.

But for many horsemen stuck at Hawthorne for more than two months, the end of the quarantine doesn’t mean that much.

“I can’t race anywhere, so what difference does it really make?” said trainer Dale Bennett, who in a normal year would have moved his string to Tampa Bay Downs for the winter. “It doesn’t make any sense to ship out at this point.”

All racetracks to which Chicago horsemen normally ship have barred Hawthorne horses. Tampa Bay and Gulfstream said Hawthorne horses won’t be allowed in for the duration of their race meets. Fair Grounds won’t allow Hawthorne horses “until further notice.” Oaklawn Park said it will revisit the Hawthorne policy after the quarantine is lifted.

Bennett said he understands the tracks’ stance. There hasn’t been a serious neurologic EHV-1 case since mid-December, but a horse got a fever and tested positive around Christmas, and there still are herpes horses isolated in Barn 8.

“I don’t think they should let anyone out right now,” said Bennett, who had a promising 2-year-old filly die in November after contracting the virus. “We’re all hopeful, but I don’t know that we know for sure this is over.”

Some trainers, like Tony Granitz, will ship horses from Hawthorne in coming days. Granitz said he will send 16 horses to local farms, but not in hopes of racing them anytime soon.

“I just want to give them a break for a couple months and bring them back in March,” Granitz said. “There’s really nowhere else to go.”

Hawthorne’s spring meet begins with two-day race weeks in mid-February. The EHV-1 situation might actually benefit that meet, with more and better horses over-wintering here than normal.

Trainer Greg Geier on Saturday morning was hot-walking a talented 4-year-old named All Stormy. All Stormy could run here in February or March if Hawthorne puts up races at his high class level. The same goes for two Geier-trained 3-year-olds of promise, Fordubai and Street Spice. In a typical year, Geier might be running both horses Jan. 19 in the Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds; now, he can only hope Hawthorne offers a race that suits them during a meet usually populated by lower-class stock.

Richie Scherer, a Fair Grounds regular, cleaned a stall and groomed his pony Saturday morning. The pony combed and brushed, Scherer left the stall and made straight for the disinfecting supplies horsemen have been urged to use as a firewall against the herpesvirus. Scherer has put a blistering agent on the lower legs of most of his horses. A few grass runners still have coats clipped short and have been vigorously walked around the shedrow, waiting for Hawthorne’s track to reopen for training Tuesday.

Scherer still holds a sliver of hope the turfers might make New Orleans for a couple late-meet starts. Realistically, he figures the EHV-1 outbreak has turned him into a year-round Chicagoan this season.

“Right now, I’m just hoping for a light winter and an easy start to the turf season at Hawthorne,” Scherer said.