By Bill Finley
Illinois racing has its problems. There's no more Arlington Park, there will be only 64 days of racing this year and the circuit will shut down in the middle of the summer. But with the 2022 season about to start Saturday at Hawthorne, officials at that track are predicting that navigating through this year will be challenging but not impossible.
“How are we going to do? I can tell you more Wednesday when we draw the first card,” said Racing Secretary Al Plever. “But I think were going to be OK.”
The Hawthorne spring meet consists of 34 days and runs through June 25. When Arlington was running, racing would shift there in the summer before returning to Hawthorne in the fall. That gave horsemen a seven-month racing season that consisted of 118 days last year. But Hawthorne won't be running a summer meet because it must also host two harness racing meets each year. That means that there will be no Thoroughbred racing in the Chicago area for the bulk of the summer, from June 26 until a 30-day fall meet begins Sept. 23.
The fear was that the gap in the summer would lead to an exodus out of Illinois, with horsemen choosing a circuit where there were more racing opportunities and they wouldn't have to pack their bags in the summer.
“At the end of June, we're all going to have to leave,” said trainer Mike Campbell, the former president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. “The problem we are all facing having to leave our homes. I will not live in my home here for more than four months a year. That's a problem. Everybody is in same boat.”
But Plever said only a handful of Illinois regulars have left and that stalwarts like Larry Rivelli, who will have 80 horses at Hawthorne, have remained loyal. Most have found a place to call home during the summer. The best fit appears to be Canterbury Park. The Minnesota track will have 65 days of live racing, beginning May 18 and ending Sept. 17. In an effort to attract Chicago horsemen, Canterbury has put together a bonus package for Illinois-based horses. A thoroughbred starter that raced in Illinois in 2021 or 2022 but has not previously started at Canterbury will be eligible for a $1,000 bonus in their first start of the 2022 season.
“It will be a little different this year because people used to be able to stay here pretty much all year and now we have a couple of months where they are in limbo,” said Hawthorne Assistant General Manager John Walsh. “They can go to Canterbury, which is a great track that has turf racing When they're done there they can come back in the fall and I think we will also have some sort of bonus program for horses coming in from Canterbury. I haven't heard of too many people who are staying away.”
Campbell said he will spend the summer at Colonial Downs and knows of other trainers who will be doing to Indiana Grand, Prairie Meadows and the Ohio racetracks.
One of the reasons horsemen are committing to Hawthorne is that a sizable purse increase will be ushered in this year. At about $120,000 a day in 2021, Hawthorne had among the smallest purses in the sport. This year, the simulcasting money bet off-season in Illinois does not have to shared with Arlington and the horsemen have also secured a one-year subsidy from the state. Plever said purses will average about $190,000 a day this year with purses for maiden special weight races increasing from $22,000 to $40,000.
Walsh also believes a later start–Hawthorne typically opened about a month earlier–will help.
“We might get off to a bit of a slow start but I think that by May we will be 40 to 50 percent better off than we have been at some of the past spring meets,” Walsh said. “We're going to have more turf racing. Weather-wise, we're sure to have some decent days in May and June. When you're running in March and April there can be rain or even snow and you're hard pressed to even get on the turf course. I think we will do much, much better and the signal will look better with some green grass instead of everything being just gray.”
But there will be challenges. Thoroughbreds used to be able to train at Hawthorne when it was shut down in the winter, but, because of the harness meet, which didn't end until March 20, that wasn't possible. With the track not opening for training until Monday, five days before opening day, there will be a number of horses who aren't yet ready to go. Plever said that of Monday there were 400 horses on the grounds and he expected another 200 to 300 would arrive by Saturday. That may not seem like a lot, but Hawthorne, throughout April, will race just two days a week, on Saturdays and Sundays.
In the longer term, Hawthorne should be just fine. A casino is in the works and the added money should yield a generous hike in purses. There is also the hope that a new harness track will be built somewhere in Illinois, which would mean that Hawthorne could go back to running Thoroughbreds only.
“This meet, it is the start of something,” Walsh said. “Once the casino opens up that will really energize things. We have a time line now. In time, these purses here are going to go through the roof.”