02/13/2013 5:13PM

Hawthorne: Return to normal would be welcome


STICKNEY, Ill. – On Tuesday morning at Hawthorne Race Course the slop on the inner half of the main track was deep as a creek. At the height of training only a handful of horses picked their way through the soup. One published workout was recorded. The few trainers or assistants braving a chill west wind while trackside shouted at exercise riders to jog, not gallop.

Those circumstances, while unpleasant, are nothing out of the ordinary for a Chicago racetrack in February. And Hawthorne, which opens a 40-day winter-spring meet on Friday, could use a few nothing-out-of-the-ordinary months.

When last open for racing Dec. 31, Hawthorne still was quarantined because of an equine herpesvirus outbreak that began in mid-October, resulted in seven equine deaths, and took a toll – emotionally, financially – on everyone associated with track. The fervent hope is that the EHV-1 virus has gone quiet again. And that appears to be the case.

A few horses that stubbornly continue to test EHV-1 positive but don’t display symptoms still exercise after regular training hours, but the Illinois Department of Agriculture quarantine ended Jan. 13, and in the last two weeks, both Fair Grounds in New Orleans and Oaklawn Park in Arkansas have begun accepting horses that were stabled at Hawthorne after the outbreak.

Trainers Richie Scherer, Roger Brueggemann, and Ingrid Mason have recently shipped stock to Fair Grounds and Oaklawn, and other horses trapped here during the quarantine were turned out at farms once permitted to leave. Even accounting for those departures, there appear to be more horses over-wintering than in a normal year, which could help early-meet entries. Eighty-eight horses were entered in nine opening-day races, 84 in nine races Saturday.

How fit those animals are is an open question. Hawthorne closed its track for training to inspect the base of the surface during the first two weeks of January, and quite a bit of training has been lost to weather since the track reopened. The hope is there are enough race-fit horses to fill three-day weeks, Friday through Sunday, in February, before Wednesdays are added to the menu during March and April.

The highest-class fare on the first two programs is a first-level Illinois-bred allowance race, but the quarantine situation might have kept a few more higher-quality animals at Hawthorne than in a regular year.

“I think we will have more of the better horses here in the spring, because they never left,” said John Walsh, Hawthorne’s new assistant general manager. “We have no problem running two allowance races a day if they fill.”

The public presence of Walsh, who took over from longtime assistant GM Jim Miller, who left at the end of 2012, is one of several changes at Hawthorne. Chief among are alterations to the Illinois Derby that came about because the race was left off Churchill Downs’s list of Kentucky Derby qualifying races. The local derby has been moved to April 20, one week later than in recent years, two weeks before the Kentucky Derby, and four weeks before the Preakness. Track officials are calling the race a Preakness prep, and with a purse boosted to $750,000 from $500,000, the race should attract ship-ins regardless of its association to the Triple Crown.

Miller wore a thousand hats at Hawthorne, among them paddock host and handicapper. Those positions now belong to Angela Hermann, who previously worked at Canterbury Park. Walsh was promoted from director of simulcasting (he retains that area of responsibility) and will oversee day-to-day operations.

“It’s going to be interesting,” Walsh said. “Jim was doing so much stuff before. Now we wonder, ‘What are we going to miss out on the first day or two?’”

While the derby purse is up, overnight purses in all categories except maiden special weight and allowance races are down $500 to $1,000 compared with the winter-spring 2012 meet. A maiden special weight race goes for a $26,000 purse; $5,000 claimers are running for $11,000 to start the meet.

Frank Kirby and John Haran were the most active trainers at the entry box this week, and figure to run plenty of horses throughout the meet. Chris Emigh, Tim Thornton, and Florent Geroux could vie for leading rider.