02/10/2010 12:00AM

Horse count up as Hawthorne meet begins

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STICKNEY, Ill. - There were blizzard warnings out for Chicago's south suburbs early Wednesday morning. But out on Hawthorne's main track, just southwest of Chicago proper, where a foot of snow had fallen the 24 preceding hours, 23 horses posted timed workouts.

Chicago remains tightly held in winter's grip, but Hawthorne's 2010 spring race meet remains on course for a Friday kickoff.

Hawthorne shortened its winter dark period from eight weeks last year to six weeks this year, an effort to entice more Illinois horse people to stick around between the end of the fall-winter meet Jan. 2 and Friday's "spring" opener. The plan appears to have worked, according to Hawthorne assistant general manager Jim Miller, who said the most recent ontrack horse count came in at more than 1,200, compared to 990 for the 2009 opener.

Hawthorne charges no stall rent for winter dark-time training and managed to keep its track open all but two scheduled days - the track is closed for training Sundays in January - since the end of the fall-winter meet.

Short fields always have been an early-season problem in Chicago, and Hawthorne hopes to boost field size by racing only three days per week - Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday - during February. Tuesdays will be added during four-day March racing weeks, Sundays when the schedule expands to five-day weeks in April. Closing day is April 10.

Average daily purses should come close to the $170,000 or so per day, including stakes, during the fall-winter meet, according to Hawthorne president Tim Carey. Carey also said that Hawthorne was experiencing no cash-flow problems, despite a well-publicized failure to pay Illinois breeders awards from the fall-winter meet within a mandated 30-day window. Carey said that Hawthorne had experienced delays paying simulcast money to and receiving simulcast money from racetrack owner Magna Entertainment because of that organization's declaration of bankruptcy, but Carey said that situation had been resolved.

Unlike last year, Hawthorne does not seem to be counting on an imminent infusion of capital generated by a state-legislated impact fee imposed upon four northern Illinois casinos. The distribution of nearly $90 million in impact-fee funds collected four years ago and designated for purses and track operators is still being held up by casino legal maneuvers. The next step in that process comes Feb. 23 when a U.S. district court judge holds a hearing on the matter.

Carey also said Illinois racetracks plan to submit legislation Thursday that would bring slot machines to Illinois racetracks. Slots proposals have been floated year after year in the state legislature, but all have come to nothing. Carey, however, said that "we think we have a pretty good shot this session."

Betting on Hawthorne races has declined markedly in recent years, but the rate of fall eased in 2009, even without state-mandated financial aid, and Carey said that he was "hopeful that we have hit bottom." Still, Carey said that absent the impact-fee funds or the advent of racetrack gaming, Hawthorne might have to alter its business.

"I think naturally you'd have to look at the number of racing dates, and you'd have to look at your purse structure in order to sustain the racing industry," he said. "At some point, you can't just keep going down."

News was less bleak in terms of opening-day entries: The 10-race program drew 99 of them, including also-eligibles. Among a steady diet of maiden claimers and conditioned claimers are a pair of allowance races, one for open horses, another for Illinois-breds.

Frank Kirby, easily the leading trainer at this meet last year, entered horses in four opening-day races and figures to stay busy throughout the meet. Roger Brueggemann, who sends out live runners every Hawthorne spring, also has horses in four races. Ray Tracy has 35 stalls this year, Wayne Catalano 20 - neither had a Hawthorne string last spring.

Leading spring 2009 rider Tim Thornton hangs his tack here again, but runner-up Inez Karlsson is in Florida this year. Tanner Riggs, Lyndie Wade, Eddie Perez, and Ariel Smith should have steady business. Eddie Razo returns after suffering an injury late last fall. Ramsey Zimmerman surfaces at Hawthorne after leaving the Fair Grounds colony in November.