03/07/2013 12:14PM

Hawthorne still on its feet after difficult season

Four-Footed Fotos
Sweetnorthernsaint wins the 2006 Illinois Derby, Hawthorne's signature race. Once a major Derby prep, the race was excluded from Churchill's new Derby qualifying system and is being rebranded as a prep for the Preakness Stakes.

In Washington Park on Chicago’s south side, there’s a low brick building with green trim that until 1905 stabled horses at the original Washington Park racetrack. In the south suburban town of Homewood, a street called Derby Avenue harks back to Washington Park’s second incarnation, which burned in 1977. Through mid-20th-century, Chicago attracted many of the best stables in the country every summer. The remains of the old tracks lie all over Chicagoland: Aurora Downs, Garfield Park, Harlem Race Track, Dexter Park, Brighton Park. Sportsman’s Park.

Sportsman’s was the last to go. Sportsman’s ran a competitive second to Arlington Park in Chicago’s Thoroughbred pecking order until it opened the Chicago Motor Speedway in 1999. The car track went bust three years later, and now, from his office window, Hawthorne Race Course president Tim Carey can see the beverage distributorship that has taken Sportsman’s place, a stark reminder that Hawthorne and Arlington are the last two Chicago tracks standing.

The Carey family has owned Hawthorne since 1909, and Hawthorne often has been low man on the Chicago racing totem pole. A 1978 fire felled a serviceable grandstand, which gave way to a structure embracing function over beauty. When Chicago racing boomed the crowds showed up at all the tracks, but Washington Park and Arlington got the elite horses. The rural land Hawthorne occupied in the early decades of Carey stewardship long ago gave way to heavy industry and high-volume commercial traffic. Until Sportsman’s demise, any Chicago racing insider would have chosen Hawthorne the local track most likely to disappear.

Hawthorne’s DNA is coded for survival, but the last year has pushed the track closer to extinction. An equine herpesvirus outbreak in October killed seven horses and led to a state-imposed quarantine of the backstretch, badly compromising the 2012 fall-winter meet. And as Hawthorne’s 2013 spring meet began Feb. 15, the track confronted the looming consequences of the Illinois Derby – Hawthorne’s signature spring race – being excluded from Churchill Downs’s new Kentucky Derby qualifying system.

Churchill Downs is owned by Churchill Downs Inc., as is Arlington, and Arlington chairman Dick Duchossois is CDI’s largest shareholder. Duchossois and Arlington have steadfastly maintained they played no part in the Illinois Derby’s exclusion from Churchill’s new Road to the Kentucky Derby system. Carey professes to believe that version of events. Many, though, see the linkage as all too obvious, an effort to make Chicago a one-track town. A diminished Illinois Derby won’t automatically doom Hawthorne, but Illinois Derby Day has become the only spring date Hawthorne has in the national spotlight.

“Whatever industry you’re in, especially entertainment, I think you want one big day,” Carey said. “Yes, we’re blue collar, but the Illinois Derby gives us more exposure.”

Hawthorne has responded by moving the Illinois Derby from four weeks before the Kentucky Derby to April 20, raising the purse from $500,000 to $750,000 while hoping to rebrand the race as a Preakness prep. To some, those moves invite comparison to shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. Hawthorne’s financial status has become tenuous. Money the Illinois legislature pipelined from casino profits to boost racing’s fortunes is nearly gone. Arlington has been on the attack, and permission from state government to open a slots parlor – presented as a salve to all wounds – may never come. The track’s backstretch is badly in need of upgrading; its frontside could use a face-lift. Tim Carey says he has a vision for what Hawthorne could become. The question is whether money to bring about change will come before time runs out.

Carey, 50, has been Hawthorne’s president since 2005. He was preceded in the position by his cousin, his uncle, and his great-uncle. One hundred and three Carey family members own the Hawthorne track and land. Those private shareholders haven’t received a dividend for years, Carey said.

“No one is making any money off Hawthorne, and that really is the hard part about staying in this game. There has been a frustration level within the family,” Carey said.

While the Carey family presided over Hawthorne, the Bidwill family had Sportman’s. Stormy Bidwill was the track’s widely respected overseer during Chicago racing’s heyday, but Charlie Bidwill III, Stormy’s son and a member of Tim Carey’s generation, was responsible for the auto-track disaster. Even after the auto track failed and Sportsman’s closed, the entity that ran race meets, the National Jockey Club, persisted. The NJC merged with Hawthorne, with spring racing dates, including the Illinois Derby, moving to Hawthorne in 2003.

First held in 1923, the Illinois Derby has been a graded stakes since 1973. Until 2000, it was run a week after the Kentucky Derby, a rich pot for 3-year-olds not quite ready for prime time. Since 2001, the race has been contested four weeks before the Kentucky Derby, part of the old Derby prep system that used graded-stakes earnings to determine Derby starting slots.

Its omission from the Derby points system was curious. In Churchill’s 36-race series are stakes in England and Dubai and Canada, at Golden Gate Fields and Sunland Park. There are ungraded stakes and turf races. The Illinois Derby has not always been a meaningful Derby prep: The race’s last three winners, American Lion, Joe Vann, and Done Talking, made no Triple Crown imprint. But the Illinois Derby produced the 2002 Kentucky Derby winner, War Emblem, and the 2006 Derby favorite, Sweetnorthernsaint. Musket Man, the 2009 Illinois Derby winner, finished third in the Derby.

Carey said when Churchill revealed its new system in June, it caught Hawthorne off guard. Carey’s first call went to Duchossois, not Churchill.

“As soon as the thing was announced, I picked up the phone and called him,” Carey said. “He said he was not aware of it. He said he had just found out about it himself. I took him at his word.”

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Duchossois played a part in the demise of the National Jockey Club. The NJC carried debt from the auto-track project into its merger with Hawthorne, including a $20 million loan that Duchossois Industries, Duchossois’s private company, purchased for $5 million in July 2006. In September, the note was called, the NJC couldn’t pay, and the entity ceased existence.

Since then, Arlington has regularly called into question Hawthorne’s financial viability during annual racing dates awards meetings with the Illinois Racing Board.

“Publicly they have said at hearings that they need us, and in the same breath, they try to put us out of business,” Carey said. “It’s very confusing in that regard. I would say, ‘Who is one party to decide who will be alive and who won’t?’ ”

Arlington’s general manager, Tony Petrillo, denied Arlington wants to bury Hawthorne.

“We don’t want that,” Petrillo said. “We want strong, viable race meets that support each other and feed off each other. That could include a spring meet, but that depends on the amount of money available.

“We have a different perspective on what is going to be most viable for racing in this state. We think there needs to be less racing to build purses and attract better horses,” Petrillo said.

Hawthorne’s response to the Illinois Derby has not gone unquestioned. Many Hawthorne-based horsemen scoff at the notion of a Preakness prep, suggesting the same horses would show up if $250,000 had been carved from the purse instead of added to it. Mike Campbell, the president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said that his group approved the purse increase “with qualifications.”

“I told the racing board I approved with reservations,” Campbell said. “These expensive races have gotten to the point where they’ve gotten unsustainable, but what we’re doing is helping support Hawthorne’s effort to energize the Illinois Derby.”

By September, when the Illinois Racing Board held its annual racing-dates awards hearing, Churchill’s move was being used as a cudgel against CDI-owned Arlington. Churchill’s decision was harmful to the general welfare of Illinois racing, board members argued, and in the end, the board approved a 2013 schedule that shifted from Arlington to Hawthorne more than $1 million in purse money and track commissions earned from betting on simulcasts during January and February. At the hearing, Carey suggested the money could be used to boost the Illinois Derby purse, but he denies there was any quid pro quo with the board.

“I don’t think we had to raise the purse,” Carey said. “Look, I think the Illinois Derby is extremely important for us. I think that because of the point system that was put in place, we had to ask ourselves how to keep the Illinois Derby significant on a national level. It’s a balancing act, in terms of the overnight purses.”

The Illinois Derby battle is only one front on what has come to seem like endless war between Chicago racing entities.

“There always was infighting in Chicago,” said Neil Milbert, who started turf-writing for the Chicago Tribune in 1970. “It wasn’t one big happy family. But it’s become more pronounced lately. When Arlington burned down [in 1985], the first thing Tom Carey did was offer his racetrack to them. He said, ‘Make this your home.’ ”

Arlington is pursuing a lawsuit against the state racing board, arguing the board acted improperly in crafting the 2013 dates awards. Hawthorne, too, has responded bitterly to past racing board decisions, and the ITHA, the horsemen’s group Campbell heads, has been at war with Arlington. The horsemen’s association and Arlington fought over a contract governing the 2012 Arlington season, and recently locked horns over language in Arlington’s 2013 stall application. Meanwhile, the Illinois legislature has yet to relicense account-wagering companies for 2013, and online bettors have been shut out since early January. CDI-owned Twinspires is a major player in the Illinois account-wagering landscape, while Hawthorne and the Chicago harness tracks in 2012 derived little benefit from online bets. In fact, Hawthorne in late February announced a purse increase because of increased business at offtrack betting parlors.

To Carey, the incessant fighting has everything to do with a steady, serious decline in the business of Illinois horse racing. “Back in the day, everyone was making money. Now, you’re fighting for every dollar possible.”

The stark facts of Carey’s perspective come out in annual reports issued by the Illinois Racing Board. Betting handle on Thoroughbreds peaked in Illinois at about $727 million during 2002, and by 2011 had fallen to $418.7 million. In 1995, the first year of full-card simulcasting in the state, Illinois handle on Illinois races was more than $872 million. By 2011, that number was a mere $142 million.

Illinois Thoroughbred purses also peaked in 2002 at $79.2 million. In 2011, only $44.3 million in purses were paid, and Campbell, president of the horsemen’s association, is concerned about Hawthorne’s overnight purse structure, which stands at slightly more than $180,000 per day at the spring meet. That figure, however, is propped up by impact-fee money transferred from the highest-earning Illinois casinos to the state’s racing industry in August 2011. Hawthorne’s purse account has only about $2 million of an original $17 million left, and that will be gone by the end of 2013. Carey estimated that without impact-fee reserves, Hawthorne purses this spring would be about $135,000 per day.

“If we don’t get legislative help, clearly, there won’t be room for two tracks in Cook County,” Campbell said.

“Legislative help” has become code for slots at tracks, and dire pronouncements like Campbell’s are, as much as anything, a lobbying tactic aimed at state legislators. For years, those legislators have denied Illinois racing’s requests to operate slot machines. Expanded-gaming legislation, including slots at tracks, has passed both houses of the legislature and gone before Gov. Pat Quinn, but nothing has come of it. The legislature is in session now, and just like every winter, a gaming bill is floating around. The governor has not vocally opposed expansion the way he did much of 2012. Mayor Rahm Emanuel still wants a Chicago casino.

“I do believe we’re closer than we’ve ever been,” Carey said, fully cognizant that the same words are spoken year after year, and that nothing has come of them.

“There’s no question that at some point it doesn’t make sense to stay in the game,” he said. “I don’t think we’re there yet.”


May 20, 1891: The track, owned by Chicago businessman Edward Corrigan, opens with a five-race card.

1909: Thomas Carey purchases the track, beginning a century-long ownership under the Carey family.

Nov. 19, 1978: A fire destroys the Hawthorne grandstand, forcing the track to cease racing until September 1980.

April 6, 2002: Eventual Kentucky Derby winner War Emblem wins the Illinois Derby at Sportsman’s Park, which closes one month later. The race is moved to Hawthorne the following year.

May 6, 2006: Illinois Derby winner Sweetnorthernsaint goes off as the post-time favorite in the Kentucky Derby. He finishes seventh.

June 14, 2012: The Illinois Derby is excluded from Churchill Downs’s new qualifying system for the Kentucky Derby.

Oct. 14, 2012: The track’s first case of the equine herpesvirus is found in a barn, killing seven horses and leading to a state-imposed quarantine of the backstretch.

Jan. 29, 2013: Hawthorne repositions the Illinois Derby as a prep for the Preakness Stakes, moving the race from the first to third Saturday in April. The purse is also increased from $500,000 to $750,000.



Year Race dates Total commingled handle on track Purses
2011 105 $215,809,253 $19,871,578
2010 95 229,360,481 14,936,932
2009 108 250,546,013 19,167,767
2008 111 286,303,810 20,940,119
2007 118 292,069,875 23,142,374
2006* 126 329,095,861 25,402,419
2005* 125 331,726,239 26,990,908
2004* 114 298,507,474 24,383,263
2003* 115 304,720,123 24,456,807
2002 66 169,965,471 14,295,668

*Combined meets (NJC and HRC)


Year Race dates Total commingled handle on track Purses
2011 86 $256,009,852 $21,262,809
2010 91 264,613,853 21,496,061
2009 98 392,363,638 26,765,289
2008 96 411,949,374 26,108,164
2007 94 418,103,382 26,051,084
2006 95 370,737,863 25,861,365
2005 94 399,358,259 24,226,071
2004 96 386,041,175 26,366,321
2003 104 408,574,428 29,198,206
2002* 107 524,281,552 46,071,490

*Includes Breeders' Cup