05/07/2002 12:00AM

Merger may mean end of racing at track

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STICKNEY, Ill. - Sportsman's Park, which concluded a 46-day meet Saturday with mixed results, might have hosted races for the last time.

A deal that would merge operations between the National Jockey Club, which operates the meets at Sportsman's Park, and Hawthorne Race Course could come to fruition in the next month, according to principals at both tracks. If the tracks merge, the NJC would stage future meets at Hawthorne, which sits on property adjacent to Sportsman's.

Consolidation has regularly been considered since Sportsman's reconfigured its facility to host both auto and horse racing in 1998. During construction of the auto track in 1999, the NJC held its meet at Hawthorne. The Illinois Racing Board, which assigns racing dates to the state's tracks, has since urged Sportsman's and Hawthorne to consider consolidation.

During the last year, the tracks say they have engaged in serious discussions, but now both sides say a deal is close.

"I'm confident we'll have some definitive agreement within 30 days," said Charles Bidwill III, president of the NJC.

Thomas Carey III, president and general manager at Hawthorne, also expects a decision on the potential merger in the coming weeks. If nothing happens then, Carey said, the issue might be dead.

Without changes to existing law, the NJC would forfeit several significant sources of revenue if it merges with Hawthorne, including real estate tax benefits, revenue from OTBs and riverboat casinos, and distributed purse money reimbursed by the state.

A bill to amend law to accommodate the merger could be introduced in the legislature during its ongoing spring session. "We're working to get that done right now," Bidwill said.

Bidwill said he doesn't know what would become of the Sportsman's facility if a deal is made. The auto-racing side of the track's business has been a disappointment, and its future at Sportsman's is murky. The facility could be put on the market, said Bidwill.

Besides the 1999 season, Sportsman's has hosted horse racing every year since 1932.

Average daily ontrack handle - including wagers on incoming simulcasts - on this year's 45-day meet (a 46th day was canceled in mid-card) was up almost 2.5 percent over last year, from $2,346,797 to $2,405,216. But increased betting on simulcasts generated the increase, and unlike last year, this Sportsman's meet included the lucrative Kentucky Derby program.

Average handle from all sources on Sportsman's live card declined by 7 percent, from $2,263,736 to $2,099,982, and the daily on-site average on live races fell 16 percent, from $255,660 to $214,694.

Larry Sterling won his first Chicago riding title, while Mike Reavis was a runaway winner of the trainer's title and Wexler Stables topped the owners' standings.