03/30/2011 4:32PM

Hawthorne tries to beef up its field sizes by offering money to all race entrants


STICKNEY, Ill. – Hawthorne announced earlier this week that beginning with Friday’s card, purses will be paid to last place in its races.

“My feeling is we need to make some changes to encourage more participation in races,” Hawthorne assistant general manager Jim Miller said in a press release. “I’m not going to lie: This spring meet has been a struggle to fill races.”

Perhaps more disturbing than short fields, which long have been a feature of spring racing in Chicago, is the fact that filling races has been getting harder, not easier, as this meet has gone on.

When races were being conducted just two days a week in February, six racing days produced an average of 8.9 starters per race, a healthy total. But as soon as Hawthorne increased its race week to four days in March, the trouble began. Through Tuesday’s races here, Hawthorne has been averaging just 7.0 starters per race during March, and in the five programs beginning March 22, that number has fallen further to 6.62 starters per race. Historically, Chicago horses have started making their way north from Florida, Louisiana, and Arkansas in mid-March, but this year, there’s no influx so far.

The ontrack handle on Tuesday’s program, which had 55 starters in eight races, was a paltry $40,289.

A Renoir intriguing in Friday feature

Friday’s third race, a high-end allowance race also open to $50,000 claimers and carded for 1 1/16 miles on the main track, is a de facto prep for the $100,000 Peach of It Handicap, an April 23 race for Illinois-bred mares. And since four of the five entrants in the Friday feature are warming up for the rich stakes, it makes sense to take a long look at the only horse in the field without a next-start goal.

That’s A Renoir, a mare who also happens to be in good current form, is priced at 4-1 on the morning line. A Renoir has none of the earning power possessed by Friday opponents like Home’s the Best, Jitterbug Blues, and Pathway, but she has a pair of solid second-place finishes at the meet, and generally has been going good since trainer Gerald Butler and owner Joe Becknell claimed her for a mere $3,200 last May. Moreover, in eight Hawthorne dirt starts, A Renoir has finished worse than second just once.