02/06/2016 12:09PM

Pandolfo: Hawthorne winter meet a success


For the first time in eight years, harness racing came back to historic Hawthorne Race Course in 2016. The winter meet, which began on January 8, ends this Saturday, February 6.

Hawthorne's Director of Publicity and racing analyst, Jim Miller, watched the track transform from a Thoroughbred facility to a Standardbred showcase.

"The transition from thoroughbred to harness racing started 15 minutes after the last thoroughbred race was run," Miller said. "And the work was done quickly."

Hawthorne's track maintenance team removed 11,000 tons of sand and the rail. The track was ready for qualifiers after 72 hours of work. When the harness meet ends this weekend, the dirt that was removed will be sifted and returned to the track for the thoroughbred spring meet that opens next month.

The biggest job was removing the aluminum Fontana rail that's used for thoroughbred racing and replacing it with the pylons. The process is difficult because the rails are deeply entrenched. The horse racing industry tends to be steadfastly opposed to change. But, in my opinion, the rails that are used for thoroughbred racing are too hard and immobile, and therefore cause unnecessary injuries to horses and riders.  Miller mentioned that Hawthorne may look into installing a safer thoroughbred rail that could be used for both sports, or that's easier to remove for the transition.

Because of the long stretch, Hawthorne's oval has tighter turns than most two turn tracks.

"The stretch is almost a quarter of a mile long," Miller said. "The long stretch can be unforgiving. Some of the drivers told me that it surprised them. They felt that they had a lot of horse left turning for home but got swallowed up in the final sixteenth."

There is no doubt that during this winter meet, Hawthorne's one mile oval has favored closers. I rate it as the least speed-biased harness track in the country.

"The horsemen like the surface and it's safe. We haven't had any problems with injuries," said Miller.

Besides his publicity duties, Jim Miller is the track handicapper and morning line maker. With full fields going two turns over a closer-friendly track, favorites are winning at 36%, well below the average for harness racing.

"The payoffs are good," Miller said. "We have a 15% takeout Pick 5 with a 20-cent minimum. Last Sunday (January 31) the Early Pick 5 paid $3,896.14 for 20 cents and the Late Pick 5 paid $2,140.98 for 20 cents. Last Friday (January 29) our 20-cent Jackpot High 5 was hit for $110,906.92.  

"As the guy who makes the morning line, I can tell you, it isn't easy. The races have been competitive. I'm not always sure who to make the favorite."

Miller, who also covers the thoroughbreds, can also been seen analyzing the Hawthorne races on TVG.

"TVG has shown every harness race this meet," Miller said.

Having the races televised on TVG helps the handle, which has been robust.

"Our handle has exceeded expectations," Miller said. "We try for full fields. That's what bettors like. So we have gone with 10 or 11 race cards. Last week was our best week yet. On Wednesday and Thursday we handled over $800,000 a night with 10 race cards, and Friday, Saturday, and Sunday we handled over $1 million a card with 11 races. For our first harness meet since 2008, this is a good sign. I'd say that handle is about 14% over what we anticipated.

"Another good thing about the one mile track and long stretch is that there isn't a severe post position bias here like there is at many harness tracks," Miller said. "Post 10 hasn't done well, but post 9 is winning at 10%, so from posts 1 through 9, it's pretty even."

Before the meet started, Hawthorne's management team communicated well with the horsemen. One of the suggestions the horsemen made was to card races where they could find spots for their horses. Harness racing secretary Pete Hanley has done a good job during the harness meet.

"The horsemen said that at Balmoral and Maywood there were too many condition races with no claiming tag attached," Miller said. "We've changed that and we've also had some claiming series, which the owners and horsemen like. The races in the claiming series are very competitive."

Because Hawthorne is a well established thoroughbred track, there is a crossover element to the handle.

"We can see from our Player's Rewards problem that many of the thoroughbred fans are betting on our harness product," Miller said. "I wouldn't be surprised if as many as 50% of them have wagered on harness this meet. On Saturdays, for instance, they are here for simulcasting wagering in the afternoon, but many are betting our early 20-cent minimum Pick 5 for the harness card before they leave the track."

Hawthorne, which is one of the five oldest tracks in the country, celebrates its 125th year of racing this year. It has been owned by the Carey family for the last 103 years. The current President of the track, Tim Carey, is 4th generation ownership. He's the great grandson of Thomas Carey, who took over the track in 1909.

Hawthorne's spring/summer meet runs from May 6 through September 25th. It could be tougher to full the races during the summer because of the popular Hoosier Park meet in Indiana, and competition from Ohio and other tracks.

"Cooperation between tracks is not something that has been embraced," Miller said. "But we've been talking to Hoosier to see if we both could schedule races with differing conditions, especially when we're racing on the same day. This will give the horsemen more opportunities to find good spots for their horses, which helps the product.

"The harness meet has been strong," Miller said. "We've averaged between $65,000 and $70,000 a night in purses and we'd like to go to $80,000 a night for the summer meet. We hope that Illinois will eventually pass the gaming bill so we can have even higher purses."

Whether or not Illinois will ever actually pass a gaming bill is anyone's guess. But right now Hawthorne has solidified harness racing in the state, saving jobs and probably the entire Illinois harness racing industry. And the bottom line is, Hawthorne's harness racing product is good. Harness racing has been hurt by short payoffs, speed and post position bias, and a high percentage of winning favorites. None of these problems exist at Hawthorne. The races are fun to watch and bet, and the handle proves it.

To find out more about Pandy’s handicapping theories check out his www.trotpicks.com or www.handicappingwinners.com websites, his free picks at handicapping.ustrotting.com/pandycapping.cfm or write to Bob Pandolfo, 112 Michael Ct., Northampton, PA 18067.