03/01/2017 3:36PM

Hawthorne tries all twilight cards for spring meet


STICKNEY, Ill. – Hawthorne Race Course starts off the 2017 Chicago racing season on Friday with the return of something old, the Illinois Derby, and the start of something new, regular twilight race cards.

All 22 of the scheduled racing programs at Hawthorne’s spring meet will have a first post of 4:10 p.m. Central. It’s a new wrinkle as Hawthorne tries to find the best niche for a racing product that has suffered from dwindling purse money in a generally troubled Illinois racing landscape.

Purses in Illinois are generated strictly through betting handle and have declined precipitously in recent years, but Hawthorne is holding the line from last spring’s meet with an anticipated daily outlay of $105,000 in purse money. In order to pay purses even at that level, Hawthorne was forced to cut its spring meet sharply in 2016, with the total number of races reduced from 305 in 2015 to 163 last year.

Apparently, though, there are plenty of horsemen willing to run for that kind of money. Hawthorne, when the opening-day card was drawn Tuesday, was home to almost 600 horses, according to track officials, about 100 more than at the start of the 2016 spring meet. That is plenty to fill just two race cards per week, Fridays and Saturdays, through March before Thursdays are added to the racing schedule in April.

The locally based stock should be fitter than after most Chicago winters because there has barely been a winter here. Almost no snow fell during January and February, and temperatures have been unseasonably warm. Similar conditions have prevailed at Fairmount Park, from which many horses ship for Hawthorne races during this meet.

Nevertheless, Hawthorne racing secretary Allen Plever is following the plan he used last season and is carding only short races early in the meet for horses still getting into full racing shape. Friday’s opening-day card has races only at five and 5 1/2 furlongs. The program drew a healthy 91 entrants. If the unusually warm conditions prevail, Hawthorne could start carding grass races earlier than ever.

For lack of funding, Hawthorne’s traditional spring feature, the Illinois Derby, was canceled in 2016, but it is back this year. The Grade 2, $250,000 race over 1 1/8 miles is scheduled for April 22 on a card that includes the only other stakes this spring, a pair of $40,000 Illinois-bred races.

Scott Becker, the private trainer for owner William Stiritz, dominated the 2016 spring meeting with 20 winners, and Becker seems primed for action again, with horses entered in four of the nine races on the opening-day card.

Added purse money approved

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The Illinois Racing Board on Tuesday approved a measure that would direct $500,000 from its budget to fund purses at Illinois tracks.

The IRB has extra funds in its budget because Standardbred racing dates in the state significantly decreased when Maywood Park and Balmoral Park closed before the 2016 racing season. The only Standardbred meet left in Illinois is the summer Suburban Downs at Hawthorne meeting.

Arlington would get the lion’s share of the IRB funds, just less than $260,000, with about $82,000 going to Hawthorne, $37,000 to Fairmount Park, and about $120,000 to the Suburban Downs meeting.

The measure, however, must be passed by the Illinois legislature before the funds can be disbursed.

◗ The latest bill that would expand gambling in Illinois and bring slot machines to racetracks passed the Illinois Senate by a 31-26 margin Tuesday but remains a long way from becoming law. The bill is part of what is being called a “grand bargain” designed to resolve Illinois’s state budget crisis. The Senate is taking up 12 different bills that would become law only if all of them pass both houses of the legislature and are signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner.