A look from the grandstands of recently-closed Arlington Park meet shows weeping willows that shield the track from Wilke Road, willows that started to take on orange and yellow hues in the final days of the Arlington meet.
A look from the grandstands of about-to-open Hawthorne Race Course show much less greenery, a water tower, the every-so-often #54B CTA bus on South Cicero, and maybe a plane or two going into Midway Airport three miles away.
Okay, so maybe the aesthetics aren't so pleasing to the eye. But for punters perplexed by polytrack, Hawthorne Race Course is a breath of fresh air. Specifically, there's a one-mile around dirt oval at Hawthorne. While often prefaced with adjectives like "old-fashioned" and "organic", that dirt oval will be what handicappers study for the next three months as Hawthorne's Fall Meet opens on Friday October 5, the third of Chicago's three major thoroughbred horse racing meets.
Hawthorne's Fall meet opens on October 5 and the track will be open five days a week for live racing. A Wednesday-through-Sunday live schedule will be in place all meet long; Thanksgiving Day, Thursday November 22, will not feature live racing; however Hawthorne is open for off-track simulcasting. The facility is closed both on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Monday December 24 and and Tuesday December 25. The meet ends Sunday December 30.
First post every day during Hawthorne Fall will be 2:10 pm central time. The track won't, as in past seasons, have "Twilight Fridays" early in the meet with posts pushed forward a little later in the day. Hawthorne Race Course Assistant General Manager Jim Miller explains the reasoning behind the post time changes.
"In regards to post time, we wanted to be consistent and are going at 2:10 PM daily. While this is a half hour later for the start, we will actually get done at a similar time as in the past. The reason for the later start is to be able to avoid some of the competition from the East Coast tracks. We see a major boost in handle as those tracks finish as we are still racing. Also, we will now be able to go 23-24 minutes between races instead of having to go 29-30 minutes between races earlier in the day as we had in the past to avoid those tracks.
The shortened wait time between races and the later start could be a boon to players. While it reduces the wait time for trigger-happy simulcast players, it also is a boon to on-track patrons on a windy cold day.
On-track patrons will also be delighted by the revival of Fan Friendly Fridays, which feature $2 specials all day on general admission (program included), hot dogs, and beers.
What will also delight simulcast players and on-track patrons are a slightly souped-up stakes schedule. Front-loaded to place more stakes in fair weather rather than in foul late-autumn and winter weather, the Hawthorne Fall Stakes Schedule sees most of the fall fixtures return with a couple raised purses and some schedule shifting.
The first Saturday, October 6, features the G2 $500,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup. At a mile and a quarter on the dirt, the race serves as a steppingstone to the Breeders' Cup Marathon or the Breeders' Cup Classic. "Picks and Ponderings" will be on site, as well as covering the race for Thorofan. The Gold Cup Day program will also feature a pair of grass stakes with a pot of $100,000, The Robert F. Carey Memorial at nine furlongs and its female-restricted complement, the Indian Maid at a mile and a sixteenth. All three stakes--The Gold Cup, Carey Memorial, and Indian Maid--will be part of that day's late Pick Four sequence. Last year, the two grass stakes only had a purse of about $60,000.
The following Saturday, October 13, features the last graded race of the year in Illinois. Sophomore males will go a mile and an eighth on the weeds in the G3, $200,000 Hawthorne Derby.
Typically late October features the Illinois Festival of Racing, a state-bred stakes six-pack. This year, the stakes have been pulled apart into three separate Saturdays.
The two stakes for three-and-up sprinters, the open Lightning Jet and the Powerless for fillies and mares anchor the October 20 program. The two stakes for routers, the open Buck's Boy and the Illini Princess for fillies and mares have been shifted this year to the grass but retain their 1 1/16 mile distance. They will will be contested on October 27th. The two stakes for juveniles: the Sun Power and the Showtime Deb (for fillies) serve as the November 10 co-features. All six Illinois-bred stakes carry a purse of $125,000.
According to Miller, the move to pull the stakes apart was done to put an event on each of the first six weeks of the meet. Pulling the stakes apart also allows Illinois-bred juveniles at Hawthorne to get a start prior to the stakes, which according to Asst. GM Miller local trainers would like to see. The new November position also gives better spacing to the final two stakes on the Hawthorne Schedule for juveniles. The $125,000 Whitworth Debutante on December 1 falls three weeks after the Showtime Deb. The $125,000 Edgar Futurity falls a month after the Sun Power on December 8. The Edgar closes out the stakes calendar.
Meanwhile, the everyday cards at Hawthorne should feature the large fields simulcast players crave. According to Asst. GM Miller, look for large fields from a full backstretch, similar purse structures as last fall, a plan to run at least two Illinois-bred races each day, and potentially more races for two-year-olds.
Defending Hawthorne Fall champion Florent Geroux will be out to defend his riding title. He'll be hard-pressed to hold on to it, as the first and third place finishers from the 2012 Arlington meet, Francisco Torres and Rosemary Homeister, Jr. will anchor the jockey colony. The former won the title at Hawthorne Spring and will look to sweep the year's titles, the first in six years with a chance at the Hawthorne Spring-Arlington-Hawthorne sweep. The latter will continue to yield square mutuel payoffs with her rides. Canterbury Park champion Tanner Riggs, apprentice Alex Canchari, and Harry Vega (who is near, if not over 4,000 wins as of publish time) return to Chicago. Other familiar faces such as Quincy Hamilton and Tim Thornton will hang their tack. The most glaring absences will be of Inez Karlssson (who isn't riding due to a desire to enjoy motherhood, according to Miller) and Arlington runner-up James Graham, who will be in Kentucky.
Trainer Roger Brueggemann, the first-call trainer for Midwest Thoroughbreds will look to build on his 2012 Hawthorne Spring Title. He'll fill the entry box along with usual training suspects such as Michael Reavis, Larry Rivelli, and Jim Divito. The aforementioned Midwest Thoroughbreds, the leading owners of both the 2012 Hawthorne Spring and Arlington meets leased the oval during the summer for training, and they'll be among the contenders for leading owners.
The wagering menu will be similar to both Hawthorne Spring and Arlington, with the base on the Pick 4 and the Pick 5 (with its low 14% takeout) set at fifty cents. The Pick 6 stays at a $2 base, and the Pick 9 is a $1 base Place Pick 9 wager. The fifty cent minimum is also present on trifectas as field sizes permit, with dime superfectas in play as well. According to Miller, Hawthorne Race Course this year will also have a Jackpot Hi-5 wager as well. Mimicing Arlington Park's wager, it will pay out its jackpot pool in only two scenarios: a mandated payout (such as closing day) or when exactly one winning ticket is present. Should multiple winners exist, 50% is carried over and 50% is paid out to those possessing winning tickets. The Jackpot Hi-5 has a one dollar minimum and 20% takeout.
Look for full "Picks and Ponderings" coverage of Hawthorne from Gold Cup Day to New Year's Eve and everything in between. The meet starts out strong with Gold Cup Day (look for Gold Cup News using Twitter hashtag #hgc12), and the three two-a-day experiment stakes experiment will be interesting to watch unfold. Mix in the Breeders' Cup, and it should be a ball of fun.
Images courtesy Hawthorne Race Course. Special thanks to Asst. GM Jim Miller for considerations with this piece.