02/25/2004 12:00AM

Smooth sailing for strange bedfellows

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STICKNEY, Ill. - Conventional wisdom says they are the unlikeliest of allies - two former next-door neighbors and rivals who have meshed into a singular entity that has retained the exclusive rights to Thoroughbred racing on the south side of Chicago.

But talk to either of the principals in the Hawthorne National LLC - a melding of National Jockey Club and Hawthorne into one company - and they will say that things couldn't be going smoother.

"Frankly, I think it's working out very well," said Thomas Carey III, whose family has owned Hawthorne Race Course for 104 years. "Obviously we've had our challenges because of the cultural and operational differences among the two companies, but overall, it's a pretty healthy situation."

"I think we're going to have another great year," said Charles "C-3" Bidwill III, whose family owned Sportsman's Park, the now- defunct neighbor to Hawthorne, for some 70 years before the property was sold last year to the Village of Cicero.

In truth, the partnership that came into existence was borne not of desire, but of necessity. Throughout their long histories, the tracks operated autonomously, with their most notable collaborations coming when they needed to combine their political resources to take a stand against Arlington Park, the fair-haired child in Chicago's Thoroughbred triangle. The southside tracks also took turns leasing the other when one track was rendered useless because of fire or renovation.

Along the way, they had their squabbles - and they certainly never had to rely on each other much until two years ago, when the grand plan to turn Sportsman's into a dual horse-and-auto-racing facility was exposed as a failure. Although the Bidwill family apparently had the money to cover considerable losses in the fiasco known as the Chicago Motor Speedway, it still needed a way to retain its Thoroughbred license and continue to turn a profit. The Bidwills initiated a dialog with the Careys, ultimately resulting in the founding of Hawthorne National LLC, the umbrella company responsible for the business affairs of NJC and Hawthorne. The first meet run under the Hawthorne National banner was the 2003 NJC-at-Hawthorne spring meet.

Sadly, the Sportsman's property sits virtually unchanged, its towering grandstand serving as the whitest of elephants. Cicero officials have explored several ways to develop the property, including commercial and residential possibilities, but nothing of substance is in the works. And so there it sits, in all its useless glory.

At least a few complications resulted from the Sportsman's closing, including the loss of the Sportsman's facility for stabling and training, and some lingering problems with the complex recapture issue, which since the mid-1990's has allowed racetracks, through a mathematical formula, to deduct money from purse accounts each year, ostensibly "recapturing" profits from live handle lost to full-card simulcasting

But overall, say Carey and Bidwill, the transition has gone well. All-sources per-day handle averaged more than $2.4 million at the NJC meet last spring, an increase of nearly 18 percent, and handle at the Hawthorne fall meet also increased. NJC has a 99-year lease to run at Hawthorne, and with one year in the books, the parent company of both tracks is off to a decent start, indeed.

"I believe that for all the parties involved, including the horsemen and fans, it's been a good match," said Bidwill. "We were very happy with how last year went, and I'm very confident we're going to continue along that road."

Week begins with five dark days

The racing schedule starts somewhat curiously at Hawthorne. While racing will be conducted on Sundays (except Easter, April 11) and Mondays for the rest of the meet, that is not the case this week. After Saturday, Hawthorne will be dark for a five-day stretch, reopening next Friday, March 5.

"Ideally, that's the kind of schedule we'd like to keep every winter in January and February," said Carey. "There are a lot of Chicago horsemen who don't have the means to go somewhere else during the two-month break, so they just sit here without a way to make any money. Obviously, there would be the weather to consider, but two- or three-day weekends, without the winter break, would suit us just fine."

A year-round schedule would mark a significant departure from Chicago's traditional schedule and would require approval or compromise by Arlington and the Illinois Racing Board. One primary issue is "host status" for the purpose of simulcast revenues, and Arlington has host status for almost all of January and February.

"Our position is that the 'host' system is not working, except for the benefit of Arlington's Turf Festival," said Carey. "We are on record as seeking change in how that is structured."

Sterling Jr. weds Cadman

Jockeys Larry Sterling Jr. and Zoe Cadman were married on Feb. 3. The marriage is the first for both.

"It took me 34 years, but I finally took the step," said Sterling.

Sterling and Cadman have won riding titles in recent years at Hawthorne. Sterling led the NJC-at-Hawthorne spring standings each of the last two years, while Cadman won an abbreviated Hawthorne meet in 2002.

Other notable marriages between jockeys in recent years include David Essman and Vicki Warhol, and Jose Ferrer and Rosemary Homeister Jr.

Meier prefers to pick and choose

Several jockeys at Hawthorne ride first-call for top trainers, including Sterling for Mike Reavis, Carlos Silva for Richard Hazelton, Shane Laviolette for Tom Tomillo, and Chris Emigh for Frank Kirby.

But not Randy Meier, who won the Hawthorne riding title last fall when riding for a wide array of stables.

"I don't want to ride them all for one outfit," said Meier, who will turn 50 on July 20. "I want to ride one for them all."

* The Chicago weather this weekend is supposed to be great, but at least one stark reminder of winter remains: the Hawthorne turf course is still a semi-frozen brown. If everything goes as scheduled, and the weather cooperates, the first grass race will be held April 12.