The Week in Review: At Hawthorne, They Try Harder

Hawthorne | Four Footed Fotos

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A casino is supposed to be on the way, but in the meantime these are tough times for racing in Chicago and its only remaining racetrack, Hawthorne. They still don't have any outside revenue from a casino, their purses are meager and their simulcast signal gets lost on days like Saturday, when they went up against the likes of Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Keeneland, Oaklawn and Santa Anita. The handle Saturday was $1,019,178. It should have been three times that.

We've seen a lot of tracks experiment with lower takeouts. The latest example is Keeneland, where the takeout on all daily doubles has been lowered to 15% for the spring meet. It had been 22%. At Delta Downs, they dropped the takeout on all Pick Fours and Pick Fives from 25% to 12%.

But no track has gone to the extremes that Hawthorne has. To get horseplayers to gravitate to their product, they dropped the handle on win, place and show bets in 2023 to an industry low 12%. This year they introduced a $1 Place Pick 8 wager with a takeout of 8%, the lowest takeout on any bet in the sport.

“We want to provide the best value in the country for our customers,” Assistant General Manager John Walsh said prior to the start of the 2023 meet.

They also brought back the Illinois Derby, which was run Sunday. It hadn't been run since 2017 and is now situated on the map to be a prep for the GI Preakness S. This year's race offered a $200,000 purse and Hawthorne will give the winning owner an extra $20,000 to cover the costs of starting in the Preakness if they choose to go that route.

Hawthorne just as easily could have done nothing and treaded water until the casino is built. That's exactly what a lot of tracks would have done. Instead, they are doing everything they can to build their core business, which is horse racing. They believe that horseplayers will now look at the entire Hawthorne card because of the low takeouts when in the past they probably wouldn't have paid any attention to it.

The lower takeout structure has helped. In 2022, the last year under the old takeout structure, the average daily Thoroughbred handle for the 68-day meet was $1,212,267. In 2023, that number inched forward to a daily average handle of $1,310,034. This year they have picked up some momentum. Through the first nine cards on the year, average daily handle has been $1,780,443.

“We truly do have more eyes on the screens, wagering on our races and wagering in all pools,” Hawthorne's Director of Racing Jim Miller said. “And these figures are before we have run a single stakes race or turf race.”

The numbers are heading in the right direction, but they are also somewhat disappointing. Horseplayers love to complain and complain about just about everything. That's what happens when you play a gambling game where the takeout is so high it is virtually impossible to win. The onslaught of computer assisted wagering has only made it worse. The everyday player is getting hammered and it seems that many have simply given up.

That's why the players need to support Hawthorne or any other track that is trying to give them a break when it comes to how they price their product. And they don't do it enough. Vote with your wallet and send a message. Tracks watch what other tracks do. If Hawthorne can only make marginal increases in handle with a 12% takeout, then what incentive do the major tracks have to follow suit and lower their take? If Hawthorne's handle soars, other tracks will follow suit with lower takeout rates.

And never has this been more important. Sports betting is much more popular than betting on racing and offers a much smaller takeout, typically around 5.5%, than your typical racing bet. The best way to remain competitive in the face of sports betting is to offer a reasonably priced product and not superfectas with a 30% take.

Racing returns to Hawthorne next Saturday. Do yourself a favor. Check out the card and make a few wagers. The racing is not the best, but at no other track will you get more bang for your buck, and they deserve your support.

The Metformin Issue…Is There a Better Way?

George Weaver became the latest trainer to be notified by the Horseracing Integrity and Welfare Unit (HIWU) that he had a horse test positive for metformin. No one thinks that Weaver is a cheat or used the drug to dope his horse. He has an outstanding reputation and has never been in any trouble during his career. Still, after the split sample comes back, he is facing a suspension of up to two years, which can wreck a trainer's career.

The metformin positives have been a constant source of controversy for HIWU because common sense tells you that the horses tested positive not because their trainers cheat, but because metformin is widely prescribed to human beings to treat Type II Diabetes, which makes it susceptible to positives that are the result of environmental contamination. The groom of the horse Weaver trained who tested positive reportedly takes metformin.

It's a tricky situation. HIWU can't just throw out all metformin positives because there is evidence that metformin can be a performance-enhancer. According to the National Library of Medicine, metformin improves performance in high-intensity exercise.

There is an alternative. Metformin is on HIWU's list of banned substances, drugs that, when found, yield the most severe penalties. Why not move it off of the banned substance list and put it on the list of controlled medications. The penalties for those are far less severe.

And there is a precedent to follow. Before HIWU came onto the scene and when the racing commissions were still in charge, it seems that most thought that metformin was not such a big deal. Under the rules of the Association of Racing Commissioner's International, metformin was classified as a 2B classified substance.

Pre-HIWU, there were four metformin positives over a period of roughly two years. The penalties varied, but were pretty much a 15-30 day suspension and a fine. In June of 2023, it was reported that top trainer Wesley Ward had a horse racing at Monmouth test positive for naproxen and metformin. He was suspended 15 days and fined $2,000, a case where the punishment and the crime were a much more reasonable fit.

Will Dettori Get a Derby Mount?

He's riding as well as anyone in the country and has been open about his desire to ride in the GI Kentucky Derby, so how is it possible that no one has tabbed Frankie Dettori to ride in the Derby? The best mount still available is GII Wood Memorial winner Resilience (Into Mischief), who was ridden by John Velazquez, who is committed to Fierceness (City of Light). Trainer Bill Mott said that Junior Alvarado will ride his horse unless somehow Velazquez becomes available beforehand.

Few other mounts are available, but one that is is Encino (Nyquist), the winner of the GIII Lexington S. He was ridden by Florent Geroux, who is committed to stablemate Just a Touch (Justify). But trainer Brad Cox has never ridden Dettori.

In the meantime, Dettori's agent Ron Anderson said there is a chance Dettori will ride at Saratoga. What a treat that would be.

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