By T. D. Thornton
Illinois racing is still struggling to recover from the twin blows of the 2021 closure of Arlington International Racecourse and the inability of the state's two surviving Thoroughbred venues–Hawthorne Race Course and FanDuel Sportsbook & Horse Racing–to follow through with building their proposed racinos that were legalized back in 2019.
Yet Thursday's Illinois Racing Board (IRB) meeting was conducted with a noticeably welcome tone of cautious optimism, as commissioners unanimously approved 2024 race dates against the backdrop of revamped racino construction schedules at both venues that could mean gaming revenue will finally be flowing into the state's Thoroughbred purse accounts by 2025.
Hawthorne, just outside Chicago, was granted a bump upward to 78 programs for 2024, an increase of 10 days over this year's schedule. Instead of closing on Labor Day, next year's meet will extend through mid-October.
FanDuel–which almost everyone who spoke at the meeting still refers to by its nearly century-old name, Fairmount Park–in 2024 will race a similar 62-card template as it did this season.
But the track 280 miles southwest of Hawthorne (just over the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri) will have to share Saturday racing with Hawthorne for the bulk of next year as Hawthorne attempts to build its season around night and weekend racing to avoid horses competing amid loud and intrusive construction of the racino.
Hawthorne for decades has had a decidedly blue-collar reputation. But for the past two years it has been thrust into only-game-in-Chicago leadership status after the devastating exodus of the more opulent and suburban Arlington, which was sold and is being redeveloped as the possible site for a football stadium.
Tim Carey, Hawthorne's president and general manager, did not spare superlatives when he painted a vision of the future for the track that his family has owned since 1909.
“I truly believe that Illinois horse racing is on the precipice of an incredible renaissance, that will not only uplift our local participants, but will re-establish Chicago racing to national prominence,” Carey said, adding that the plan to bring the racino to life would transform Illinois into “one of the most exciting and prosperous markets for horse racing in North America.”
Yet every time Carey referenced the long-awaited racino during the Sept. 21 meeting, he was careful to get it on the record that everything he was promising was predicated on the Illinois Gaming Board signing off on details of the deal in a timely manner.
“They, of course, still have to approve everything that we do–financing, the commencement of construction,” Carey said. “We don't have that yet. We need to provide that to them.”
Melissa Helton, the president and general manager at FanDuel/Fairmount, estimated the same 14-month start-to-finish construction phase for her downstate track as Hawthorne's management was outlining.
“We're hoping by the end of the year to have that started,” Helton added. She didn't bring up–nor did commissioners ask her–about how construction would affect the horses at the two-days-a-week 2024 meet (Apr. 16-Nov. 16).
Chris Block, the president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, expressed confidence in Hawthorne's plan. Perhaps as early as Sept. 22, his organization is poised to sign a two-year deal for racing there.
“The horsemen are going to have to suck it up again and start training at five in the morning to accommodate construction, and [Saturday racing] is going to be a necessity for us when we're under construction,” Block said. “We're going to need to run on Saturday and Sunday, and [Thursday] evening. So the horsemen are ready for that [and] we look forward to that. We're working together, we're going in the same direction with something that is an absolute necessity in this day and age in the Illinois horse racing industry.”
But, Block added, “I really, really, really look forward to 2025, and the operation of that casino, and the rebirth of Illinois horse racing, and a positive direction not only in breeding, but in racing.”
Hawthorne is also pledging to move forward with plans to identify and build a second racino that would eventually be the separate home of commercial Standardbred racing in greater Chicago. That would mean Thoroughbred and harness horses would no longer have to share the same venue, which is what currently keeps both breeds from year-round racing in the state.
Carey said Hawthorne will cease its 2023-24 fall/winter harness meet in time for the track to be converted for Thoroughbred training by Feb. 13.
Hawthorne's 2024 Thoroughbred meet will open Mar. 23 with Saturday and Sunday racing until June 21, when the schedule expands to three days weekly by adding Thursday evenings until the meet closes Oct. 13.
In 2023, Hawthorne originally had Saturdays on the schedule. But the IRB in April approved a request to move those Saturdays to Thursdays, with Hawthorne management advocating at the time that switching to Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays would be a better business decision handle-wise. It also eliminated the Saturday overlap with FanDuel/Fairmount, which traditionally races Tuesday afternoons and Saturday evenings.
The racino construction has changed those business parameters, and Hawthorne's 2024 request to go back to Saturdays came as a surprise to FanDuel/Fairmount.
“Today is the first day I'm hearing that they were going to pick up on Saturday,” Helton said. “The last conversation I had with [Hawthorne racing director] Jim Miller, they were keeping their schedule the same, [and] obviously it will impact how many horses we have on the field.”
Asked for his take prior to the commissioners voting 9-0 to endorse the Saturday overlap, Illinois Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association president Jim Watkins, who trains horses at both venues, said he didn't think the two tracks running on the same day (Hawthorne in the afternoon, Fairmount in the evening) would be a big deal.
“I think it's workable,” Watkins said. “The other option for Fairmount would be to go to a lesser [weekday], and that, of course, would hit us in the pocketbooks [via loss of handle revenue], and we're not in great shape.”
Yet a couple of moments later, Watkins painted a more positive picture of the current meet at FanDuel/Fairmount, which is scheduled through Nov. 18.
“The purse account is in a good position, nearly $1 million to the positive, so the horsemen are not in debt to the track,” Watkins said. “We anticipate, because of funds that have come in, that we will be able to have, for the fourth year in row, a purse increase of hopefully 10-20%.”
Watkins also noted that “we've gone to eight races a day [from the IRB-mandated seven], and if the entries stay as strong, we're anticipating possibly nine or 10 races some days. The horse population, since the closure of Hawthorne on Labor Day, we've gone from 572 to 676 with a few more stables bringing a few more in.”