09/24/2002 11:00PM

Traditional Illinois dates win a tense approval

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CHICAGO - A tense 10-hour meeting of the Illinois Racing Board on Tuesday produced a 2003 Illinois racing schedule that closely resembles Chicago's traditional Thoroughbred racing calendar - National Jockey Club in the spring, Arlington in the summer, and Hawthorne in the fall.

The final tally to accept the proposed schedule was 8-3, but one "no" vote was cast by the new board chairman, Dennis Bookshester, whose dissent underscored deep rifts among the board members.

Dissension centered in great part on the National Jockey Club dates, with some members pushing to eliminate the NJC from the schedule.

The NJC starts the Chicago season March 1 and will race 48 days until May 8. Arlington opens for business May 9 with a 103-day meet running through Sept. 27, with Hawthorne racing 68 days, from Sept. 28 through Jan. 1.

Downstate Fairmount Park races 114 days between April 4 and Oct. 18.

The NJC's fortunes spiraled downward after Sportsman's Park was converted to an auto-racing track, and this past summer NJC officials announced the shuttering of Sportsman's and a loose merger with Hawthorne Race Course. With the Sportsman's property now for sale, the NJC proposed to run its race meet at Hawthorne, with whom it would share operating expenses and profits through a company called Hawthorne National LLC.

The NJC's meet eventually was approved, but company officials were grilled by board members about accounting irregularities on the dates' application and the heavy debt load - about $60 million - the NJC carries, mainly the product of the auto track's struggle. But with financial assurances from the Bidwill family, the NJC's owners, to continue to channel cash into the company as needed, a majority of board members voted to accept the schedule that eventually was approved.

Charles Bidwill III, president of the NJC, said: "There was always some concern" about getting dates "because of what's in the newspapers and colleagues trying to put you out of business.

"I think the board listened and the facts speak for themselves. We had a bad mistake with the auto racing, but we've always been committed to horse racing."

The awards were a success - if an unsurprising one - for Arlington, which had shifted its meet to a June-October run to attract the World Thoroughbred Championships this year.

Hawthorne officials had complained about the split spring and fall meets they were given the last two seasons, but now the track returns to its traditional spot and hopes to reestablish a fall stakes schedule centered on the Hawthorne Gold Cup.

Between the NJC and Hawthorne awards, Hawthorne National LLC has 116 race days next year, 13 more than Arlington, which troubled Bookshester.

"I don't understand telling the customers to spend 13 more days at Hawthorne National than Arlington," Bookshester said.

Hawthorne, racing as Suburban Downs, was awarded a 49-day harness meet. Harness racing returned to Hawthorne this summer and received glowing reviews from horsemen. Hawthorne raced 37 days this year and had applied for a 75-day meet for 2003.

The board rejected two-day-a-week racing in January and February, and divided commissions earned on full-card simulcasts during those months along the same lines as this year, with Arlington receiving about 80 percent of several million dollars. Arlington received host-track status during January 2003, while the NJC and Hawthorne will split the month of February as host tracks. Host tracks derive profits generated from full-card simulcasts. Arlington had no host-track days this season.