11/18/2010 4:01PM

Quality down, but handle up at Hawthorne meeting

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STICKNEY, Ill. – The good news at Hawthorne Race Course this fall? Handle has ticked modestly up from the fall-winter meeting last year, and, thanks in part to four-day race weeks this season, Hawthorne is awash in horseflesh. The quality of those horses, however, has fallen steeply compared to past meetings. Saturday’s card looks about typical, with the lone allowance race for Illinois-bred entry-level allowance horses.

Hawthorne let it be known before the meet began Oct. 1 that higher-end races would not be common. The track came into this season with a purse account overpaid by several million dollars and set as a goal canceling out that red ink before Jan. 1.

“We are on track to recoup everything that we set out to at the beginning of the meet,” Hawthorne assistant general manager Jim Miller said. “Even if we have no additional help, we’ll be able to come back with $25,000 to $30,000 more per day in the spring.”

Meanwhile, handicappers had better study up on lower-level claiming form: In 27 racing days so far this fall, Hawthorne has put forth a whopping 68 races open to horses racing for a $5,000 claiming price. Meanwhile, there have been six open entry-level allowance races and five open allowances at higher class levels.

Scheduling such races at this point might be folly, anyway, since Hawthorne has had trouble finding open horses for older-maiden races, Miller said.

“I’d like to be able to run some more maiden-allowance races, but we’re limited on what we’re able to do with that,” Miller said. “The open maidens have only been getting four or five entries.”

There’s plenty of lower-level stock available, and Hawthorne has averaged a robust 9.8 starters per race so far this meet, Miller said. Bettors respond favorably to full fields, and comparing similar days from 2009 and 2010, Hawthorne’s handle has increased by $3.8 million this fall, according to Miller.

Excellent weather also has helped, and Hawthorne has managed not to lose a single day of turf racing. There are no grass races in the new condition book that begins next week, but Miller said Hawthorne would continue carding so-called extra races on turf as long as the course holds up.

Track will honor Hazelton on Saturday

While there is no real feature race on Saturday’s card, Hawthorne will fete trainer Richard Hazelton during the afternoon.

“We wanted to have a day where we could honor him and have him out here, and just show appreciation for his career,” Miller said.

Hazelton, who turned 80 in September, has never been a man to step willingly into the spotlight, but he conceded that he would attend the race day in his honor.

“I guess I’m coming,” Hazelton said, reached at his home in a west suburb of Chicago.

Hazelton’s training career, which spanned nearly eight decades, came to an end last winter, though not by his own design. Hazelton’s last two major clients, Ben Barnow and Richard Radke, moved stock to other trainers, leaving Hazelton without a viable operation to oversee. For Hazelton, who began riding Quarter Horses in Arizona when he was a pre-teen and spent most of his long life at the racetrack, the transition was a difficult one, and for months Hazelton avoided the track entirely. But over the summer, Hazelton showed up at Arlington, and recently he has been coming around the Hawthorne backstretch with recently retired jockey Carlos Silva.

“I go with Carlos in the morning and just mess around,” he said.

There was little messing around during a training career many consider Hall of Fame worthy: Hazelton won 4,745 races, seventh-highest on the all-time list.