02/18/2015 12:41PM

Small purses offered at 31-date Hawthorne meet

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STICKNEY, Ill. – At midmorning Wednesday in Chicago, the temperature was 9 degrees, and overnight the wind chill was forecast to hit minus-25.

Hawthorne Race Course, meanwhile, was preparing to open its 31-day winter-spring race meet Friday.

It feels perverse, starting racing in the dead of Chicago winter, but there are reasons. Local horsemen who don’t ship to Southern tracks are itching to run for purse money rather than practice for the first time since Jan. 3. And Hawthorne, if it abandoned winter dates, risks Arlington becoming the dark-host track at this time of year, snapping up revenue generated from simulcast wagering.

But this status quo cannot hold, according to Hawthorne president Tim Carey.

This is Hawthorne’s second meet paying purses generated the old-fashioned way: earned strictly through betting handle. No slot revenue. No more casino subsidies mandated by state government. Daily overnight purses at this meet are the same as they were last fall and winter, about $125,000. Maiden special weight horses run for a $20,000 pot. Levels that low have not been seen on this circuit for decades. The current model, Carey said, is unsustainable.

“If nothing happens this year, I think we’re just going to have to see a different racing schedule in Illinois,” Carey said.

The something Carey would like to see is the passage of an expanded gambling bill, including slot machines for racetracks. Such a bill passed during the administration of former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, who declined to sign it. The new governor, Bruce Rauner, “is not opposed to more gaming, from what we’ve been told,” Carey said.

But this has become a rite of spring, the dangling of legislative relief for a beleaguered Illinois racing industry. Nothing can be counted on, and certainly nothing that will alter the landscape of the meet that starts Friday.

Despite the cold snap this week, the winter of 2014-15 has been much milder than last year’s, and that should help cards early at this meet before horses start trickling in from Oaklawn, Fair Grounds, and Tampa Bay Downs. There are about 150 more horses (800 vs. 650) stabled on the grounds this year than last, and they have been able to train more regularly, which is apparent from the fairly steady published workouts on a nine-race opening card that drew 63 entrants. Fairmount-based horsemen enter at this meet, too, and at this time last year, horses stabled there hadn’t even started working.

“I think with our new schedule, racing two-day weeks in February and three in March, I think we can sustain things,” said Carey.

The meet highlight, the Grade 3, $400,000 Illinois Derby, will be run April 18.

Bettors willing to stomach short fields should be aware that form from December at Hawthorne often does not carry over to February and March: Search for horses who ran well at the spring meet last year. Trainer Mike Reavis was the leading Hawthorne trainer last February and March, but Terrel Gore’s was the outfit really on fire during that period. Trainers Chris Dorris and Joel Berndt are steady winners at this time of year.

The Friday feature, race 5, isn’t bad, a second-level sprint allowance also open to $25,000 claimers. Trainer Jim DiVito has two who could win, Spooky Vision and Jazzy Sun, but Right Now Richie has that strong winter-spring 2014 form that can be key, as well as a recent race at Oaklawn Park.