Updated on 09/17/2011 10:21PM

Top money comes early

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STICKNEY, Ill. - Driving without traffic by expressway it is 33 minutes from Arlington Park to Hawthorne Race Course. Aesthetically, they're about a light year apart. Grape arbors and suburban streets ring Arlington. One local highlight last spring at Hawthorne was a sunken barge being dredged up from an industrial shipping canal that lies a couple hundred yards from the track.

But guess what? The racing product here is pretty good. Hawthorne averaged 9.5 starters per race two falls ago, and a healthy 9 last season, and, thanks to an infusion of winter dark-time simulcast revenue in 2005, purses actually are going to be higher than Arlington's at the 71-day meet that starts Friday.

Hawthorne forecasts paying out about $235,000 a day in purses, up from $220,000 last fall. The total this Saturday alone will be well over a million, since Hawthorne has front-loaded its stakes schedule with two of its biggest races, the $750,000 and the $150,000 Robert Carey Memorial Handicap.

The Gold Cup will get Perfect Drift, prepping for a start in the Breeders' Cup Classic. The Carey spotlights an improved turf course that the track expects will bury concerns that arose at the end of the National Jockey Club-at-Hawthorne meet last spring, when the turf was frayed and, according to jockeys, dangerous.

"We've reseeded it three times, eliminated some of the crab grass, fertilized it multiple times, manually filled in and re-grew existing spots, and watered nightly throughout the summer," said Jim Miller, Hawthorne's assistant general manager.

Hawthorne also has altered its main track, adding some 1,500 tons of new material. Miller said the track now tilts more toward clay than limestone, a change meant to help transition from summer harness racing to Thoroughbreds in the fall.

Thomas Carey remains Hawthorne's general manager, and oversees day-to-day operations, but his cousin, Tim Carey, recently came aboard the management team and is serving as Hawthorne president.

"It's more of a strategic role," Tim Carey said.

The trainer Mike Reavis's strategy apparently involved stockpiling horses during the summer for Hawthorne's fall meet. Reavis has two entered opening day, including Miss Denouncer, who goes in the featured fourth race, a third-level sprint allowance with a $35,000 claiming option.

Expect Reavis and Frank Kirby to prosper, with Wayne Catalano slowing down after a torrid Arlington season. Arlington leading rider Shaun Bridgmohan rides opening day, but soon leaves for Keeneland and points beyond.

At a glance: Hawthorne

RACING SCHEDULE: 71 days; Friday through Jan. 2, Wednesdays to Sundays; racing Monday, Oct. 10; dark Thursday, Nov. 24 and Sunday, Dec. 25.

POST TIME: 1:10 p.m. Central

HIGHLIGHTS: Grade 2, $750,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup, Sept. 24; Grade 3, $150,000 Carey Memorial Handicap, Sept. 24; Grade 3, $250,000 Hawthorne Derby, Oct. 15; Illinois Day (six statebred stakes), Nov. 12; $100,000 Illinois Debutante, Dec. 10; $100,000 Illinois Futurity, Dec. 17

ADMISSIONS: Grandstand, $2; clubhouse, $4

PARKING: General, free; clubhouse, $2; preferred clubhouse, $3; preferred grandstand, $3; valet, $4.50

LOCATION: Between Laramie Ave. and Cicero Ave. at 35th St., bordering Chicago, Stickney, and Cicero. Accessible via I-55 or overland on Cicero Ave. or Laramie Ave.

BUSINESS ADDRESS: 3501 S. Laramie Ave., Stickney/Cicero IL, 60804

SIMULCASTING: Daily (no simulcasting Dec. 25)

PHONE: (708) 780-3700

INTERNET: www.hawthorneracecourse.com