05/12/2005 12:00AM

Ontrack handle takes dip


CHICAGO - The third National Jockey Club at Hawthorne meet ended Tuesday on a sour note, with a decline in betting on Hawthorne races and a conflict between jockeys and track management over the condition of the grass course.

With ontrack attendance averaging less than 2,000 per day, the steepest drop during a meet that began Feb. 25 came in the category of ontrack handle on Hawthorne races, which fell more than 13 percent from 2004, to $194,257.

That decline will be ill-received by the Illinois Racing Board, which awards race dates and seeks to increase racing's contribution to state government coffers. The state derives more income from ontrack wagering on live races than any other type of horseracing bet.

All-sources handle on Hawthorne's live races also fell, by almost 7 percent, down from $2,380,828 in 2004 to $2,219,022.

Average field size was just 7.45 starters per race - down from 7.7 during last year's meet, and far below the nine horses per race at Hawthorne's fall meet - and contributed to betting declines. The NJC meet began earlier this year than the traditional opening of the Chicago season, and, following a schedule dictated by the Illinois Racing Board, launched into five-day race weeks. With many Chicago stables wintering in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Florida, the horse population had trouble supporting the number of races during the meet's early phase.

Hawthorne opened its grass course late in the season, but on the meet's final Sunday, jockeys refused to continue riding under conditions they deemed unsafe. The course was inspected both Monday and Tuesday, and track management lobbied hard to use it on the meet's final day, but the riders held firm.

"The turf had a lot of holes in it, and horses were stumbling," said jockey Chris Emigh. "We rode under bad conditions, but it got too bad."

Emigh won the riding title, with a spring-meet record of 73 winners. Tom Tomillo led the trainer standings with 32 victories, and Frank Calabrese easily was the leading owner.