Illinois Dates: NJC to Race at Hawthorne in 2003

After a lot of sound and fury during a 10-hour meeting, the Illinois Racing Board produced a 2003 racing schedule that honors the status quo and enables a semi-merger between Hawthorne Race Course and Sportsman's Park.

The board had been under pressure to freeze out the National Jockey Club, which has conducted racing at Sportsman's Park for 70 years, because of its recent shaky finances. Instead, the board awarded the NJC dates from March 1 through May 8, to be run at Hawthorne under the joint venture.

Arlington Park then will take over from May 9 through Sept. 27, with Hawthorne racing from Sept. 28 through the end of the year. Arlington got a few less days than it wanted but was compensated by the addition of a pair of key holidays and some "dark month" commission money. Hawthorne lost the spring dates it ran this year and last as part of a split season but was given a month and a half of Standardbred racing.

NJC partner Patricia Bidwill, who presented the case for Sportsman's, told the board the NJC expects positive cash flow throughout its racing season. But, she said, to guard against worst-case scenarios, the Bidwill family has loaned the company $5 million and arranged for a $4-million letter of credit.

She said the "worst case" with a 2003 loss of $2.8 million "is unlikely. But we have covered it by virtue of the letter of credit."

The NJC also endured intense questioning about the integrity of its 2002 dates application, which included unaudited financial reports. But former board chairman Ralph Gonzalez said: "This board decided there was never any intent on your part to mislead us."

The vote on the schedule was 8-3, with new board chairman Dennis Bookshester, a horse racing neophyte, among the dissenters. He said he wanted to give more dates to Arlington at the expense of the NJC-Hawthorne combine.

All three track operators said they are pleased with the schedule.

"I'm pleased we're still in business," said NJC president Charles W. Bidwill III.

Thomas Carey III, director of operations at Hawthorne, said the new schedule will enable his track to return the Hawthorne Gold Cup to its fall dates, where it had become a significant prep race for the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Arlington president Steve Sexton said the board's decision obviously was difficult. "We are glad to return to our traditional opening the Friday before Mother's Day and will continue to do our best to invest in and promote Thoroughbred racing in the state," he said.

The board also granted Fairmount Park in downstate Collinsville dates from April 4 through Oct. 8. Balmoral Park in Crete in the far south Chicago suburbs received none of the 50 Thoroughbred dates for which it applied.