09/21/2001 12:00AM

Hawthorne-Sportsman's merger has long ways to go


CHICAGO - Discussions between Hawthorne Race Course and Sportsman's Park concerning a merger of their businesses are ongoing, but no deal is imminent, officials at both tracks said this week.

The issue of consolidation between the two tracks, which are located on adjacent properties on Chicago's West side, was raised again this week at the Illinois Racing Board's 2002 dates awards meeting Wednesday. Since Sportsman's converted to a dual-purpose automobile and horse racing facility two years ago, pressure has come from some quarters urging Sportsman's and Hawthorne to reach an agreement whereby Sportsman's National Jockey Club Thoroughbred meet could be shifted to Hawthorne's facility.

There is precedent for such a move, since National Jockey Club races were run at Hawthorne in 1999, while construction of the auto racing facility was ongoing, and at last year's IRB meeting, several board members expressed disappointment that Sportsman's and Hawthorne had not reached a permanent agreement. While the IRB has no direct authority to force a merger on the two tracks, board members elevated the intensity of their questioning on Wednesday.

"I just can't imagine that we'll be here again next year looking at separate dates applications," board member Lorna Propes said.

At the board meeting, Hawthorne and Sportsman's representatives said that they had made progress toward a merger, and that both sides thought an agreement of some sort would benefit their businesses. That position was echoed in remarks made later this week, but both sides stressed that they were not close to a deal right now.

"We're farther along than we've ever been, but we still have a lot of work to do," said Charlie Bidwill III, president of National Jockey Club. "It could happen within four to six months."

"Charlie and I both have a sincere and keen interest in working on a program that's going to be good for both companies," said Thomas Carey III, director of operations at Hawthorne. "There's more energy in the thing the past year than in the last seven or eight years."

Both Carey and Bidwill said that merger talks are complex and that much remains unresolved. Among issues is the fact that much of Sportsman's business is in automobile racing, something Hawthorne has no interest in, according to Carey. "This concerns our horse racing interests and holdings," he said.

Both sides said a merger could help move their businesses forward at a time when many are calling for consolidation in Chicago. "We need to get there if we're going to have a good future from either side," Bidwill said.

"I think both Thomas and I realize we have people taking shots at us," said Bidwill. "There are too many tracks up here - consolidation is a good thing."