09/24/2008 12:00AM

Influx of casino cash on the horizon


STICKNEY, Ill. - On the morning of Sept. 15, Hawthorne Race Course executives took a grilling from the Illinois Racing Board about the track's fundamental financial viability. Late that afternoon, Hawthorne got socked in the gut when the board awarded 2009 Thoroughbred and harness racing dates. But this week, Hawthorne and the rest of Illinois racing moved one step closer to millions of dollars of casino impact-fee money sitting in an escrow fund, and Hawthorne launches its 2008 fall meet Friday advertising big, competitive fields, and something absent from Chicago racing since April - old-fashioned dirt.

As for the big fields: so far, so good. A total of 102 horses were entered for Friday's nine-race opening day program, and eight of those races are carded for dirt. Hawthorne assistant general manager Jim Miller said Tuesday he expects 1,900 horses to be stabled here opening day - an uptick from last year - and the way the racing calendar falls, Miller anticipates eclipsing last fall's solid average of 8.59 starters per race.

The meet runs into January, but long before then, Hawthorne might - emphasis on "might" - get a major cash infusion. Four northern Illinois casinos have only one legal move left, an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, to avoid releasing about $80 million to the racing industry. The money accumulated after the state passed an impact-fee law requiring the four highest-grossing casinos to contribute 3 percent of their adjusted gross receipts to horse racing. If a federal appeal isn't filed, the funds will move in late October, and Hawthorne could see something in the $20 million range, with 40 percent going to the track operators, and 60 percent to purses. More fighting seems to be brewing over how to pay out the purse money. Should it be retroactive or going forward? Emphasis on statebreds, or widely distributed? But an outside revenue stream would be welcome news for Hawthorne.

Tim Carey, the track's president and general manager, said that troubling accounting reports concerning Hawthorne were due to one-time payments in 2007 like the $6 million Hawthorne had to pay Duchossois Industries Inc. for barns sitting on Hawthorne's backstretch that Duchossois Industries acquired when it bought a lien against the failed National Jockey Club. Hawthorne itself is just now coming out from under the partnership it formed with the NJC, which ran its spring meet at Hawthorne after adjacent Sportsman's Park shut down, Carey said.

"Now we can focus on what we want to focus on, keeping racing alive in Illinois," Carey said.

Hawthorne returns to being strictly a Thoroughbred track in 2009, since the IRB denied the track Standardbred dates. Carey said last week that the Thoroughbred side of the business benefited from lease money that harness-racing entity Suburban Downs paid Hawthorne. The IRB also rebuffed Hawthorne's request for February Thoroughbred dates, and extended Arlington's season until October next year.

All these dark clouds aside, some Chicago horsemen - and horseplayers - don't hide their happiness at leaving behind Polytrack for Hawthorne's dirt track, even if the main track here can be unpredictable, too. Workout times were quick this week, and the grass course - made lush by a wet summer - appears to be in great shape.

"We'll card turf races through the second week in November, and then play it by ear," Miller said.

Frank Kirby, Tom Tomillo, and other Chicago regulars will be in the mix for leading trainer, but Jamie Ness has targeted this meet and could do well. Jockeys Chris Emigh, Inez Karlsson, Tin Thornton, and Junior Alvarado all could be set for a good autumn.

The opening-day feature is race 7, a 10-horse, six-furlong dirt race open to third-level allowance horses or $40,000 claimers.