02/09/2011 5:24PM

Hawthorne reopens admidst cold weather, chilly economic landscape

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STICKNEY, Ill. – Almost two feet of snow fell around Chicago last week. The wind chill factor Wednesday morning was about 15-below zero. Believe it or not, it’s time for the Chicago racing season to get underway, with Hawthorne Race Course launching its winter-spring meeting – emphasis, winter – on Friday.

Racing’s economic landscape in Illinois feels about as chilly as the weather. A circuit court judge this week upheld the constitutionality of impact-fee legislation meant to direct revenue from the state’s four highest-earning casinos to the racing industry, but the millions of dollars already collected and waiting in an account are no closer to being released. The funds will be held up while a civil district court conducts a trial with links to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and racing interests. No trial date has been set, and no one in racing knows when the money might flow. Meanwhile, industry efforts to begin operating ontrack gaming parlors were rebuffed by the Illinois legislature last month.

That leaves Chicago racing at the start of 2011 looking about like it did at the end of 2010, a scene far from idyllic. Hawthorne had hoped to zero out a major purse-account overpayment by the end of the fall-winter 2010 meet, but fell about $600,000 short of that goal, according to assistant general manager Jim Miller. Still, the track is following through its pledge to pay purses at a higher level this spring than last fall. The opening-day card, which drew 97 horses for nine races, offers purses totaling $128,000, which should be about par for the course. Miller said Hawthorne “made a commitment to the horsemen” that purses would not be cut this meet. Hawthorne, however, was forced to slash its spring stakes schedule: The Illinois Derby purse has been reduced from $500,000 to $250,000, and the Grade 3 Sixty Sails won’t be run this spring.”

The meet’s February phase features two-day racing weeks – Friday and Saturday – catering to local horsemen who wintered in Chicago. Miller said the horse population dropped as low as 700 during January but was back up to more than 1,000 last week, sufficient to support a program scaled back from three days at the start of 2010. In March, the racing week expands to four days for the rest of the season, with Hawthorne racing a somewhat unorthodox Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday schedule.

Miller said to expect an average of one maiden-special-weight and one open allowance race per day, a change from the steady diet of low-level claimers last fall. Friday’s opening-day card includes a second-level sprint allowance also open to $35,000 claimers, race 7, that drew a competitive field of nine. The Wayne Catalano-trained Sacred Ground got good late last year, and has been working bullets over the local dirt.

Tanner Riggs is named to ride Sacred Ground, and that will surprise racetrackers who had their ear to the local rumor mill at the end of last year. Riggs, who turns 22 later this month and has won multiple Hawthorne riding titles, was said to be headed into an early retirement from the saddle. Not so, Riggs said this week.

“I did consider it, but what I told people was that I was going to go home for the break and regroup, and that’s what I’ve done,” Riggs said.

Riggs is a fine rider, a hard worker, and has a kind, humble personality. His problem is one of size: Riggs stands close to six feet, and his battle to make weight took a toll last year.

“It got a little rough last fall,” Riggs said.

But back home at this parents’ farm in South Dakota, Riggs found the prospect of not riding far harder to take than the idea of pushing on.

“I went home, and all I could think about was riding,” he said. “It’d be 3 degrees and I’d be running four miles down the gravel road every day. The most I skipped was one day. I helped with the chores, messed around with the cattle. My weight never got any bigger than when I left [Chicago].”

Local horsemen apparently are pleased to have Riggs back: He rides the entire opening-day card.

“I’ll just take it month by month, see what happens,” said Riggs.

Meanwhile, Inez Karlsson, who rode countless Hawthorne races against Riggs in recent years, is back at the racetrack. Karlsson stopped riding early last fall while suffering from endomytriosis, but that condition may have been alleviated by a piece of good news: Karlsson has become pregnant, and is due to give birth in July. Karlsson said she has been spending more than three hours a morning walking hots for trainer Frank Kirby, and she has been hired by Hawthorne to do pre-race television analysis with Miller. Karlsson said she plans to start working horses again in October and has targeted a return to race-riding in spring 2012.

Maybe it will have warmed up by then.