The Illinois Racing Board July 31 approved a request from Hawthorne Race Course to drop 13 racing dates from its fall schedule and slash its stakes program.
The request, approved unanimously and with the consent of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, came amid concerns about the horse population likely to be available for fall races. And that, in turn, is reflective of the sorry financial condition of the state's racing.
"This year, we hope to have 1,500 horses for the fall meet," said Hawthorne president Tim Carey. "More and more people are moving to other states because of the purse structure and the lack of movement by the legislature" on a bill allowing slot machines at tracks.
As recently as three years ago, Carey said, the track had 2,700 stall applications.
ITHA executive director Glen Berman agreed the shortage of horses makes a reduced racing week the least-bad option for horsemen. "Fewer racing days means more racing opportunities because the races will fill," he said.
Berman also agreed the horse shortage is driven by declining purses, fueled by competition from states where gaming supports racing. "We have horses shipping out daily to other states," he said, mentioning Indiana, Minnesota, and Iowa.
Hawthorne cut live racing scheduled for Oct. 1-2 and eliminated all 13 Sunday programs slated to be run from October through December. The stakes schedule drops all open stakes except the Hawthorne Gold Cup (gr. II), which will be run for a $250,000 purse. The limited state-bred stakes program also will see purse reductions.
Carey said the elimination of stakes such as the Robert F. Carey Memorial Handicap, "which is named for my grandfather, was a painful decision. We're doing this to support the overnight purse structure and keep as many of the horsemen here as we can and prevent them from moving to other states."
Underlying concerns about purse structure and racing dates is a looming confrontation between horsemans' groups for rights to negotiate contracts with Arlington International Racecourse and Hawthorne.
IRB Chairman William Berry said he hopes at next month's board meeting to lay out protocols for developing rules to decide any such conflict. He acknowledged, however, that an ongoing dispute could lead to serious and lengthy legal entanglements.
The next IRB meeting is Aug. 14 at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield, coincident with harness racing at the fair's grandstand.