09/29/2010 3:15PM

Strapped for cash, Hawthorne opens with smaller purses


STICKNEY, Ill. – Hawthorne Race Course begins its fall-winter meeting Friday hoping for the best, but planning for the worst.

The hope is that before this meet ends Dec. 31, Illinois horse racing will have received a healthy infusion of cash. A resolution to the legal entanglements tying up millions of dollars generated by an impact fee legislatively imposed on four northern Illinois casinos would bring barrels of money in the short term. Passage of a law that would permit slot-machine gambling at Illinois racetracks – a possibility that will be revisited by the state legislature the second week of November – would mean long-term help on the way.

But the worst-case-scenario planning already has been done: Hawthorne slashed $700,000 in stakes purses from its upcoming meet, including halving the purse of the Hawthorne Gold Cup to $250,000. The track will start the meet paying daily purses of just $125,000 or so, assistant general manager Jim Miller said. The figure looks low for Chicago, but it is rooted in racing’s present realities.

“It’s a meet about recovery, to get back to a good position with our purses,” said Miller.

Hawthorne starts this meet with a purse account overpaid to the tune of $1.6 million. Another $2.2 million will be deducted from the purse account through the state-mandated process known as recapture. By the end of the meet, though, Miller said that Hawthorne hopes to reach a zero-balance in the purse account, perhaps allowing for stronger purse levels at the spring 2011 meeting.

To do so, the racing week this fall has been reduced to four days, with Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday dark. Simulcast betting on dark days earns purse money without anything being paid to the live product. And by starting the meet at low purse levels, Hawthorne hopes to avoid making further cuts later in the season.

“We took what we did last [fall] and projected for a 10-percent decline,” Miller said. “We had 23 days of rain last October, and if Mother Nature treats us even decent in October, we could be looking at a purse increase Nov. 1.”

Regardless of purse levels, horsemen – especially those with stock that does not favor the synthetic racing surface at Arlington Park – seem eager enough to run: 86 horses were entered on Friday’s nine-race opening-day card, while 98 went into the nine races carded for Saturday.

Frank Kirby and Roger Brueggemann, one-two in the trainer standings a year ago, should run early and often. But trainer Jamie Ness is back in town after an absence of a couple years, and could challenge for leading trainer. Ness has 50 stalls on the Hawthorne backstretch, as does Arlington kingpin Wayne Catalano. Tammy Domenosky, fresh off a strong Arlington season, was given 40 stalls.

The top three riders from fall 2009, Tanner Riggs, Tim Thornton, and Eddie Perez, all should be in regular action this autumn.

While the opening-day feature is merely an Illinois-bred first-level allowance race, Hawthorne’s stakes schedule quickly blooms on opening weekend, with the Grade 2 Gold Cup and the Grade 3 Carey Memorial scheduled for Saturday.

While the 1 1/4-mile Gold Cup did not lure 2009 winner Awesome Gem – in part because of the purse cut – the race still drew a solid group of nine when it was drawn Wednesday. The field, from the rail out, consists of Redding Colliery, Shadowbdancing, Racing Bran, Giant Oak, Arcodoro, A.U. Miner, Temple City, and Going Ballistic. Kiaran McLaughlin-trained Redding Colliery, winner of the Grade 3 Lone Star Park Handicap earlier in the year, seems the likely post-time favorite, but is one of five front-running types among the entries. Redding Colliery is the lone East Coast ship-in, Temple City the only Californian in the race.

The Carey attracted a surprisingly decent field of nine, including Wise River, who won the race in 2008.