Live thoroughbred racing returns to the Chicagoland area with the opening of Hawthorne Race Course for its Spring 2012 meet. Opening day is Friday, February 17th, the first of forty-one days of action, with first post set at 1:40 PM CT every day. Hawthorne will race on Fridays. Saturdays, and Sundays from its opening day until February 26. On February 29th, Wednesdays are added to create a four-day racing week. The four day week (Wed., Fri., Sat., Sun.) is maintained, except for April 8th (Easter Sunday), until the end of the meet on April 29th.
And while there’s always hope and anticipation for the first live races of the year, the anticipation may be higher this year.
According to Hawthorne Race Course Assistant General Manager Jim Miller via e-mail,
"We expect to have a great meet! Our track surface is in great shape and we have had great weather. Additional purse monies have been an incentive for horsemen to remain at Hawthorne and we think our spring meet is going to be a great kickstart to the Illinois racing program as a whole for 2012".
The horse population is up twenty five percent over this time last year and there are more horses in training at this time of year than in the past 10 years, according to Miller. That leads to the potential for larger field sizes, which are often lauded by handicappers and fans of competitive racing, while also a boon to the track’s ledger. Add in a mild winter that has been kind to the dirt oval just off Cicero Avenue and hasn’t interrupted too many off-season training schedules. Finally, handicappers will be pleased to know that Hawthorne’s Pick Four now has a fifty cent base as opposed to the one dollar base used in prior meets.
The same impact funds that allowed cross-town Arlington Park to create a new race on Million Day and increase stakes purses also are going to positively affect Hawthorne.
April 7 will feature the meet’s richest race, the Grade 3 $500,000 TVG Illinois Derby. Restored to the $500K level, the race is for three-year olds at 1 ⅛ miles on the dirt and is the region’s Kentucky Derby prep race. With the half-million race purse and about $300,000 of Graded Stakes earnings to the winner, the race becomes a de facto win-and-you’re in prep race for the Kentucky Derby four weeks beyond that. As an undercard bonus, the April 7 program features the $60,000 Cryptoclearance Stakes for older males on the dirt at 1 1/16 miles.
April 21 will see the return of the Grade 3 $200,000 Sixty Sails Handicap. Put on hiatus last year, the race is for older females going 1 ⅛ miles on the dirt. That weekend is also the final weekend of a meet-long handicapping contest, with the top prize being an entry to the DRF/NTRA Handicapping Challenge in Las Vegas.
April 28 is Illinois Champions Day, with a six-pack of stakes each carrying a pot of $125,000 and restricted to Illinois-breds.
The three April Saturdays of revived and rejuvenated stakes are one of many on-track features. According to Miller, “On that Sunday the 19th, we have a winter hat giveaway. For those folks that are Club Hawthorne members, they receive mystery vouchers which are worth a minimum of $5 for Sunday, February 26th”. Fan-friendly Fridays ($2 beers, $2 admission, $2 hot dogs) are on the schedule as well.
In terms of racing and promotion quality, The Author is quite pleased to see the Illinois Derby back to the $500K level. And with two promotions during the early stages of the meet, Hawthorne is making a solid effort to encourage fans to come, and perhaps come again when the weather is more forgiving. Furthermore, efforts are slated this meet to tackle Hawthorne’s most stubborn Spring problems: short fields and bad races.
Hawthorne will increase the daily average purse from $115,000 per day to nearly $190,000 per day, allowing the Stickney/Cicero oval to reach out to better-grade horses. To fight against the short fields, Hawthorne is “adding purse incentives to races with fields of 8 betting interests or more to promote larger fields and reward horsemen when they race against more competition,” says Assistant GM Jim Miller in an e-mail.
The Jockeys’ Room at Hawthorne will be different from last meet. Gone is Jerry La Sala to retirement. Harry Vega, who rode for many years in Pennsylvania and Maryland, will take mounts. Chris Russell, who rode in California, will also be accepting mounts. The colony will see Arlington Park fixture Chris Emigh will ride Hawthorne instead of Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, and Francisco Torres will hang his tack here rather than at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Tanner Riggs returns from a brief retirement and Inez Karlsson returns full time after missing most of last year with the birth of her daughter. Look for Karlsson and Emigh and perhaps Vega to challenge for leading rider along with incumbents like 2011 Hawthorne Fall leading rider Florent Geroux (who returns from briefly riding at Oaklawn), Tim Thornton and Eduardo Perez.
In terms of trainers, local fixtures and perennial leaders Larry Rivelli, Wayne Catalano, and Jimmy DiVito have kept more of their horses here instead of shipping to warmer climates. Additionally, Tammy Domenosky and Dale Bennett have kept more of their horses locally-based over the winter and should help fill the entries.
The increased purses, fresh and returning faces, and new promotions should make for a very entertaining Hawthorne meet. The Illinois Derby has been a sneaky-good prep race for the Kentucky Derby since moving to April. Lowered wagering minimums can stretch your dollar, while purse upticks and promotions should keep the turnstiles spinning.
Look for more picks and more ponderings in this space in the days to come.