03/04/2009 12:00AM

Still battling as centennial year begins

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STICKNEY, Ill. - Next door, at the defunct Sportsman's Park, heavy wrecking equipment tears apart the physical remnants of the disastrous Chicago Motor Speedway, an auto-racing track that quickly failed and took Sportsman's down with it. It's a reminder that things could be much, much worse at Hawthorne Race Course, the urban Chicago Thoroughbred track that actually still exists and launches a 38-day meet on Friday.

In fact, the 2009 season marks Hawthorne's 100th year of existence. One Thomas Carey purchased the property on which the racetrack sits in 1909, and Careys have owned and operated the track ever since, making Hawthorne the oldest family-run racetrack in the country.

Things, of course, have changed over time. For instance, spring racing here used to be the province of Sportsman's, but with Hawthorne's adjacent property soon to house a Wal-Mart where once Sportsman's stood, every Chicago Thoroughbred race not run at suburban Arlington Park is hosted at Hawthorne. And while no Hosannas have recently been heard at Hawthorne, track officials have their fingers crossed that at least the status quo will hold through 2009.

"I'm fully expecting an improvement, even slight, on what we did last spring," assistant general manager Jim Miller said this week.

Daily purses during the 2008 spring meet averaged about $168,000; Miller said the track plans on paying at the same level. His boss, track president Tim Carey, said that by meet's end, Hawthorne's purse overpayment will actually fall from its current $1.2 million to something like $800,000.

Purse overpayments are a sign of troubled times, and Illinois racing in general is in the midst of them. In fact, Hawthorne's very viability as a business has been called into question the last two years at Illinois Racing Board hearings, but total handle here actually rose slightly during the fall-winter meet that concluded in early January, and Miller said there are about 150 more horses on site for the start of the 2009 season than there were last year.

"The best way to judge how entries will be at the start is when we take papers in," Miller said. "We had 900 papers turned in last year, and 1,018 sets this year."

Whatever the total, the equines will have fewer chances for exercise this spring, since Hawthorne has decided to close the track for training each Tuesday. The decision was motivated by tough times, said Carey, who put the savings from the dark mornings at $15,000 per week.

"If there's a way of saving money right now, the bottom line is we're going to do it," Carey said.

There's money - some $80 million - for Hawthorne and all the other Illinois racetracks sitting in an escrow account right now. The funds accumulated during a two-year period when several area casinos were required by state law to pay an impact fee to racing interests. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled to uphold the impact-fee legislation last year, but the affected casinos have appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will decide sometime in late spring whether to hear the appeal. Carey said purses could be raised by 30 percent for one year if that money becomes available, but that won't happen at this meet.

Opening-day entries were good, with 86 horses on a nine-race card; 92 were entered for Saturday. The Friday feature is a third-level optional claimer, with the Roger Brueggemann-trained Foxie's Boy the likely favorite. Brueggemann won the training title in the meet that ended in January, and should be active early this meet. So should Frank Kirby, who has horses in five races Friday. Inez Karlsson, leading rider during fall-winter, is on suspension until Monday.

The stakes schedule starts and is highlighted by the Illinois Derby on April 4.