By Bob Kieckhefer
Hawthorne Race Course opens its spring meet Feb. 17 with higher purses, a lot more horses on the grounds and a hopeful eye on both the weatherman and the state Capitol.
Ninety-five horses were entered for the nine-race opening day card, which features a $35,000 optional claimer. That's from a horse population of already more than 1,300–up from 950 that were on the grounds at this time last year. Additionally, a mild winter, so far, has permitted regular training so more horses are ready to run early in the season.
Purses were boosted for the 2011 fall meeting as a result of settlement of a lawsuit over casino "impact" money that had been held in escrow. Those funds will continue to fuel purses this year, including an increase in the purse of Hawthorne's signature spring race, the Illinois Derby (gr. III) from last year's $300,000 to $500,000.
The "impact" money, however, will extend only through 2013. Racing industry officials have been lobbying furiously in Springfield for months to find a compromise on legislation that would expand gaming throughout Illinois, with some form of reliable new income for racing.
Gov. Pat Quinn has threatened to veto a bill passed in the spring session but never sent to his desk. Quinn's objections specifically include allowing slots at tracks. Instead, he has suggested race track subsidies from an already existing casino levy. However, that source of revenue requires annual appropriation of the funds–unlikely in the current dire economic climate.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is among the supporters of a compromise, which would include a much-needed land-based casino in downtown Chicago. The greater uncertainty for the 2012 meeting, however, is the fickle Chicago weather.
"Much of our success lies in the hands of Mother Nature now," said Hawthorne sssistant general manager Jim Miller. "Last year everything worked against us weather-wise as we had a very rough winter full of cold temps and large amounts of snowfall. Then we had the wettest April in 50 years, which meant we could not run a single race on the turf during the entire spring meet."
So far, this winter has been mild with little snow, he noted, adding, "Our horsemen have responded with more horses in training and many more horses ready for the start of the meet."
The spring meeting runs through April 29.