05/06/2016 3:07PM

Milbert: IHHA President Engel hopeful for strong Hawthorne meet

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Although the new president of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association has reason to be encouraged going into Friday night’s start of Hawthorne Race Course’s five-month summer meeting, he is uneasy about what the future may hold in store.

“The biggest thing with Balmoral and Maywood being closed—and it looks like out of the picture forever—is where we’re going to be racing,” Marty Engel said. “Are we going to continue at Hawthorne?

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“Right now we have a great relationship with the Carey family (that owns the track), particularly with (track president) Tim Carey. But we need to have a strong meet for Hawthorne to apply for dates next year. If it’s not a successful meet—if we can’t provide enough horses and they can’t generate enough money—the outlook is very scary for next year.”

When the Illinois Racing Board decided not to award 2016 dates to the bankrupt sister harness tracks, Balmoral Park in Chicago’s far south suburbs and Maywood Park in the near west suburbs, it had the ultimate effect of putting them out of business.

Thus, the Chicago sulky circuit—which had six tracks in the early 1970s and offered from 11 to 12 months of racing through 2015—has shriveled to a single track and a six-month schedule consisting of Hawthorne’s Jan. 8-Feb. 6 winter meeting and its summer meeting that will continue through Sept. 25.

The fact that the track in the near southwest suburbs conducts spring and fall thoroughbred meetings would seem to mean that there’s no room on the calendar for expansion. The spring meeting didn’t end until April 30 and the track crew had to do an ultra-fast surface conversion in order for standardbred qualifiers to begin on Wednesday.

“Our winter meet was tremendous,” said Engel, a harness owner for about 25 years and long-time IHHA board member who became the president early this year when his predecessor, trainer Dave McCaffrey, left the sport to become executive director of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.

“It was gratifying to see the support we had, not only from local horsemen but from those who came in from out of state. And now we’re very pleased with what we’re seeing for the Friday and Saturday night programs.”

There are 115 entries and three also-eligibles on Friday’s 12-race card. Purses total $56,500.

According to Director of Harness Racing Operations Tom Kelley, more than 550 horses are stabled at the track and “several hundred more” are based at farms in the outlying area.

“George Reider, who is one of the country’s top trainers in starts and a money earnings leader in California, is coming from Cal Expo to Chicago for the first time and will have 25 stalls,” continued Kelley. “We have other new stables and we’re expecting a pretty decent turnout from Indiana and Ohio shipping in for races.”

The winter meeting titlists, trainer Terry Leonard and his driver son Casey Leonard, head the list of incumbents.

Hawthorne’s contract with the IHHA calls for 45 races weekly—11 on Thursday, 12 on both Friday and Saturday and 10 on Sunday. This weekend, in observance of Mother’s Day, Sunday will be a dark day.

Racing Secretary Pete Hanley intends to make Sunday what Kelley refers to as “our class night” by carding open and preferred races.

In contrast to Balmoral, which annually lured many of North America’s finest pacers and trotters for its 10 lucrative American-Nationals, Hawthorne will confine its stakes to competition for Illinois-breds.

The main event of the meeting will be the Night of Champions on Sept. 10. It is Hawthorne’s version of the Illinois-bred extravaganza Super Night that was inaugurated at Sportsman’s Park and was transplanted to Balmoral after that now-defunct track terminated harness racing in October, 1997.

There will be 11 championship races for pacers and trotters. Purses will range from $50,000-$100,000.

“The stakes program has a point system,” Kelley said. “There will be four legs before the Night of Champions finals. Horses will earn points in each of the races and the top 10 point-getters will go to the finals.”

As a fan, Engel laments the loss of the American-Nationals but as IHHA president he lauds Hanley’s decision to make all of the stakes for Illinois-breds.

“They were exciting races and you’d see superstars from the East Coast,” he said.  “The problem was that people would come in and take the money out of the state. The other disappointing thing was that in recent years very few of the Illinois-breds who competed in these races were successful. We can’t afford to have races like that; we’re better off keeping the money in state.”

The winter meeting was the first harness venture since 2008 at Hawthorne, which came into the standardbred world in 1970 but has a thoroughbred history dating back to early in the 20th century. The track is located only one block south of what once was the site of Sportsman’s.

Sportsman’s was one of the country’s most successful standardbred tracks and in 1980 (when all Illinois wagering was on-track), Hawthorne became the first Illinois harness track to handle in excess of $2 million. Thus, based on the harness history of the two tracks and the Chicago friendly geography, Engel is convinced there remains a solid foundation to build on.

“At Hawthorne you can appeal to many more people,” he said. “Maywood was great but a lot of people didn’t like to bet on a half-mile track and a lot of people didn’t want to drive all the way to Balmoral. Many of those who went to Sportsman’s in the summer will start coming back here and Hawthorne is planning all kinds of entertainment that will help create new fans.”

Meanwhile, in late April, Balmoral was sold for $1.8 million to Rick E. Heidner, who reportedly plans to build a truck stop containing video gambling terminals on the property, and in a recent radio interview Maywood President Duke Johnston said the latter track will be demolished in the near future.