02/19/2014 1:15PM

Hawthorne: Winter-spring meet might have trouble filling cards amid harsh winter

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Hawthorne's 37-day winter-spring race meet begins on Friday.

STICKNEY, Ill. – The phrases “polar vortex” and “Thoroughbred racing” don’t mesh well, but it is into the midst of a historically brutal Chicago winter that Hawthorne’s 37-day winter-spring race meet begins Friday.

There have been more subzero temperatures in Chicago this winter than the last five winters combined. Hawthorne has somehow lost only six days of training during all of January and the first couple weeks of February, the dark period since the fall-winter meet ended, but there were plenty of other days when bitter cold and snow kept most of the roughly 750 horses that stayed in Chicago stuck inside Hawthorne’s cozy winterized barns. Hawthorne drew 69 horses for nine opening-day races – not terrible considering the circumstances.

“Running three cards a week at first, I think we’ll be okay,” assistant general manager John Walsh said. “We’re up to about 950 horses now. We’ve got a lot of short races in the condition book: If your horse is up to four furlongs working, maybe they can race five furlongs. It might be a little hard to fill the first couple weeks.”

Local horsemen are pleased there’s any racing at all. The fate of Hawthorne’s 2014 season hung in the balance until late last month, when the Illinois legislature belatedly renewed the state’s account-wagering law. Account wagering helps fund the Illinois Racing Board, and had the law lapsed for the second year in a row, the Racing Board would not have been able to administer a full season of Illinois racing. Under the most draconian scenario, Hawthorne would have hosted only 15 live-racing days during 2014.

“That situation definitely affected us,” Walsh said. “Usually by Feb. 1 we’d have 900 horses here, but a lot of people didn’t know if this would get settled.”

The account-wagering law passed by the Illinois legislature requires Illinois bet-takers to impose a 0.2 percent surcharge on winning bets to help fund the Racing Board. Walsh said Hawthorne won’t impose an additional optional 0.5 percent surcharge on winning wagers.

Purses at Illinois tracks have been boosted since August 2011 by so-called impact fees imposed on some of the state’s casinos. Hawthorne has only about $300,000 of impact-fee money left in its purse account, but overnight purses, Walsh said, will remain about the same as during the spring 2013 meet, at $140,000 per day.

There is more money for the overnight purse structure because Hawthorne’s only two grades stakes of the spring meet, the Illinois Derby and the Sixty Sails Handicap, took purse cuts, the Illinois Derby from $750,000 to $500,000 (its traditional purse before a 2013 increase), the Sixty Sails from $200,000 to $150,000. Both races will be run April 19, the second year the Illinois Derby has been positioned just two weeks before the Kentucky Derby.

“We thought the Illinois Derby placement worked well for us last year,” Walsh said. “We handled about $60,000 more on the race than we ever had before.”

Hawthorne has done away with a $4 admission fee: Admission is free the entire meet.

Hawthorne races three-day weeks until early March, when it adds Wednesdays to its Friday-Sunday schedule. By then, the hope is that horses will have started trickling back to Chicago from winter quarters at Oaklawn Park and Fair Grounds, but the spring 2013 meeting never really saw much of a boost, with average field size in 361 races just 7.11 starters.

The 2013 fall-winter meet leaders, trainer Roger Brueggemann and jockey Tim Thornton, both are in action opening day, but it is trainer Mike Reavis who seems to have the most race-ready horses on the first card.

And if you can find a horse in one of Hawthorne’s early-meet races that has recently raced or trained in a climate beyond the reach of polar vortices – there are two on Friday’s card – just bet it.