02/27/2003 12:00AM

Recapture: State's hot-button issue

Email

STICKNEY, Ill. - It hangs over the Chicago racing scene like a dark winter cloud. Recapture, the complex and somewhat convoluted funding mechanism that was enacted in 1999 by the Illinois Legislature as a means of financial protection for racetracks and horsemen in the state's Thoroughbred and Standardbred industries, has become a political hot potato that threatens to further exacerbate the already tenuous relationships between track regulators, track owners, and horsemen.

Recapture was meant as a pre-emptive safeguard against the kind of cannibalization of live-racing handle that full-card simulcasting can create. Under recapture, whenever a track's live business dips below a certain pre-determined level, racetracks deduct money from the horsemen's purse account, which is then replaced by state funds.

Last summer, in a development that stunned racing industry leaders, recapture funds were eliminated from the 2003 budget by Gov. George Ryan, who since has left office. About $6 million in recapture funds retroactive to the 2002 Thoroughbred racing season are at stake, not to mention recapture for 2003 and beyond.

Even though the state subsidies have been halted, the racetracks, which overpaid purses to horsemen last year, plan to make deductions from the purse account this year.

"We attempted to negotiate this issue but were rebuffed by the tracks," said Joe Kasperski, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, the organization that earlier this week filed suit against the Illinois Racing Board and all state racetracks over the recapture issue. "Our belief is that we're better off going to court."

The recapture issue has evolved into a bitter fight between Standardbred track owners and horsemen. Since Jan. 1, horsemen have been on strike at the two Chicago-area harness tracks, Balmoral and Maywood, costing both sides untold thousands of dollars.

Kasperski and his fellow Thoroughbred trainers do not believe they will have to resort to such drastic measures, but they are eager to have the issue resolved.

"We want the court to revisit the original intention of the legislature," said Kasperski.

Tom Carey 3rd, managing director at Hawthorne, where the Chicago racing season begins Saturday, called recapture "a festering sore of the horse racing industry, both for Thoroughbreds and harness. At this point, however, there is no issue on this side that we need to address. I do think it's awfully unfortunate that it's come to this point, but we'll just have to see the whole thing play out."

No Illinois-Kentucky Derby bonus

One of the major controversies in Illinois racing last year stemmed from the $1 million bonus owed the owners of War Emblem for his sweep of the Illinois and Kentucky derbies. After lawsuits were filed, the issue ultimately was settled out of court between the colt's respective seller and buyer, Russell Reineman and The Thoroughbred Corp.

A bonus for a sweep is not being offered this year - but not necessarily because of the trouble that followed last year.

"Because it got hit last year, the insurance premiums to offer it again went up by a considerable amount," said Hawthorne racing secretary Gary Duch. "In the end, management did not feel it was worth the cost."

Lost Code sprint added to schedule

A notable addition to the Hawthorne stakes schedule this spring is the $100,000 Lost Code Breeders' Cup Stakes, which will be run on the April 5 Illinois Derby undercard. The six-furlong race is restricted to 3-year-olds.

"The thinking is that if somebody's going to bring in one of their top 3-year-olds for the Derby, then they could also bring in one of their good 3-year-old sprinters for this race," said Duch.

The Lost Code was a last-minute addition and is not listed in schedules that already have been printed.

Merger helps both sides

Fans probably won't notice much, especially those watching via simulcast, but the merging of Hawthorne and the old Sportsman's Park "should allow for a more stable environment" within the Chicago racing circuit, Carey said.

"It virtually eliminates an adversarial relationship that long existed between the two tracks and forms an alliance that should benefit everyone," he said.

For years, there was an uneasy truce between Hawthorne, which long has been owned by the family of Tom Carey Sr., and its next door neighbor, Sportsman's (National Jockey Club), which is owned by the family of Stormy Bidwill. Over the years, rumors occasionally surfaced that the two families were talking about consolidating for financial and practical reasons, but a merger did not occur until last year, when the two became a company known as Hawthorne National.

Both the winter-spring meet, which is run as NJC-at-Hawthorne, and the traditional Hawthorne fall meet (Sept. 28 to Dec. 31) will be run by Hawthorne National. A summer harness meet (May 13 to June 30) will be run by Suburban Downs Inc., which is owned by the Carey family.

Tom Carey 3rd said merger-related agreements between the Careys and Bidwills are "proprietary" and not subject to public scrutiny.

No. 2 rider Trujillo shall return . . .

Elvis Trujillo, who finished second in the jockey standings behind Rene Douglas at the long Arlington Park meet last year, will return to Chicago later this month, said the jockey's agent, Harry "The Hat" Hacek.

"When he left in November, he said he was homesick, so he went home to Panama," said Hacek. "He called me recently and said he'd be ready to ride March 19."

. . . and Estrella's here to stay

Rafael Estrella, a jockey who has ridden throughout the Midwest, said Thursday that he is in Chicago to stay the entire year.

"I'm tired of all the moving," said Estrella, 37. "This is a good place to settle down."

Last year, Estrella rode in Michigan, Ohio, and Kentucky while also spending five months riding for the Crown Prince Abdullah in Saudi Arabia. Fellow American jockeys Sebastian Madrid and Francisco Torres also were working in Saudi Arabia at the time.

"The money is good there, but the life is too boring," said Estrella.

Jockeys to watch

There are a handful of jockeys who will be riding regularly at Hawthorne for the first time or after an absence of a few years, including Curt Bourque, Justin Vitek, and Ryan Barber.

Likely favorites to contend for leading rider are Chris Emigh, Larry Sterling Jr., and Randy Meier. Mike Reavis and Frank Kirby again have strong stables and probably will vie for leading trainer.

Hawthorne's turf a bonus

One of the advantages of conducting racing at Hawthorne instead of Sportsman's in the spring involves turf racing.

Sportsman's, which once was a five-furlong track before being expanded to seven furlongs in the early 1990's, had no turf track, whereas Hawthorne racing officials seem to make special efforts to card turf races, which generally draw larger fields than dirt races.

Weather permitting, turf racing will begin April 18 at Hawthorne.

AT A GLANCE

HAWTHORNE

RACING SCHEDULE: 48 days; Saturday through May 8; dark Wednesdays and Thursdays

POST TIME: 1:10 p.m. Central except May 3 (Ky. Derby day), noon

ADMISSIONS: Clubhouse, $4; grandstand, $2

PARKING: Valet, $4; preferred, $2; general, free

HIGHLIGHTS: Grade 2, $500,000 Illinois Derby on April 5; $250,000 NJC Handicap on April 19; $250,000 Sixty Sails Handicap on April 26

PURSES: About $220,000 per day

LOCATION: 3501 S. Laramie, Stickney, Ill., 60804

PHONE: (708) 780-3700

INTERNET: www.hawthorneracecourse.com