02/21/2007 12:00AM

Purses a concern as Hawthorne opens

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First there was the National Jockey Club meet, the traditional spring opening of Chicago's racing season, which over time got pushed back into winter. Then, after a disastrous misadventure in auto racing, Sportsman's Park, the National Jockey Club's traditional home, wound up a pile of rubble, and the NJC moved to adjacent Hawthorne Race Course. But last year, with the NJC facing crippling issues, the Illinois Racing Board declined to grant the racing club racing dates. So much for tradition. The 2007 Chicago Thoroughbred season begins Friday at Hawthorne with the NJC completely out of the picture.

Hawthorne's owners would like to see other changes to tradition, most notably the advent of slot machines at Illinois racetracks. Hawthorne's opening-week press release spoke not of stakes or jockeys, but of the need for slots. "Illinois horse racing is caught in a downward spiral that will require action by state government to save it," the release said.

An ominous tone, but part of an annual industry-wide push to convince Illinois legislators to grant the sport an outside revenue stream. Currently, there are three bills addressing gaming expansion afloat in the legislative houses: Two call for racetrack slots, the third only for casino expansion. A bill signed into law last year would have directed a percentage of profits from some of the state's casinos to racing, but it has been tied up in court since summer.

"The No. 1 concern of course is purses, and the fact we do not have the ability to pay the purses that other tracks are paying," Hawthorne president Tim Carey said in an interview Tuesday.

Hawthorne forecasts paying $165,000 in average daily purses, down about $10,000 from last winter and a trifle compared to the money at ongoing meets in Louisiana, which has slots, and Arkansas, which has slots-like electronic games. Carey said the track is exercising caution in purse outlays because in 2007, with the NJC out, Hawthorne itself has to run meets in the spring and fall.

Many horses at those Southern meets eventually will make their way to Chicago, but most not until April. Jim Miller, Hawthorne's assistant general manager, said the backstretch, which can house some 2,000 horses, would have about 1,400 Friday. With so many Chicago trainers away for the winter, this meet typically attracts short fields of lower-class stock until later in the spring, and Friday's nine-race card is no exception, though a third-level sprint allowance with a $40,000 claiming option did make it onto the program. While there are six $45,000 overnight stakes scheduled, the meet has only three open stakes this year. The first of them is the most important, the April 7 Illinois Derby.