Sportsman's Park will merge operations with its next-door neighbor, Hawthorne Race Course, and plans to conduct all racing at Hawthorne starting next year, officials of both tracks said July 31.The decision was prompted by the failure of Sportman's Park to convert to a dual-use facility that hosts horse racing and motorsports. Auto racing never caught on at the new 70,000-seat facility. And the new structure seriously interfered with horse racing operations.The Illinois Racing Board has been urging consolidation for years.National Jockey Club, which operates racing at Sportsman's Park, will seek 2003 racing dates at Hawthorne, which will apply separately for its own dates. The two organizations will merge operational areas such as concessions, maintenance, and mutels under a limited-liability corporation.NJC president Charles Bidwill III, and Thomas Carey III, operations director at Hawthorne, said the respective boards approved the consolidation July 30. Applications for racing dates for 2003 are due at the IRB office by close of business July 31.The decision to close Sportsman's Park ends a 70-year-history at the facility. It opened in 1932 under the leadership of a group that included Charles Bidwill Sr. and William Johnston Sr., founders of still-flourishing Illinois racing dynasties. Also in the original ownership group was Edward O'Hare, whose son became a World War II flying ace and eventually lent the family name to Chicago's international airport.Because the two tracks are not merging completely, the IRB is faced with scheduling questions based on Thoroughbred applications expected from the NJC, Hawthorne, Arlington Park, and possibly, Balmoral Park, which has conducted only harness racing for the past decade.Illinois racing law requires that an applicant for racing dates either own or "have a contract or lease for the possession of a finished racetrack..." The NJC/Hawthorne arrangement is designed to provide the NJC with a suitable lease. The IRB also will have to sort through the NJC's continued rights to simulcast revenue, ownership of off-track wagering facilities, and its rights to share in any revenue generated by a proposed riverboat casino.