Round Table, Kelso, and Dr. Fager have all graced the winner's circle during the 80 editions of the Hawthorne Gold Cup, which has offered purses of up to $750,000 and, in more recent years, grade 2 status.
But this year Hawthorne Race Course pulled off an upset just by running the race at all. In 2016 Hawthorne had no stakes to speak of on its schedule. A two-year Illinois budget impasse exacerbated a downturn in business, forcing the track to cancel even its signature stakes such as the Gold Cup and the Illinois and Hawthorne derbies.
When a surprise state budget deal was announced before the start of fall racing, Hawthorne quickly rescheduled the now-ungraded $100,000 Hawthorne Derby for Oct. 28 and the $150,000 Gold Cup (now G3) for Nov. 25, along with several stakes for Illinois-breds.
Track publicity director and racing analyst Jim Miller said that when the Illinois Department of Agriculture released a $500,000 grant to be used for Illinois breeders' programs and state-bred stakes at Hawthorne, it freed up money for the open stakes.
"We were able to restore the Illinois-bred stakes program at all of the racetracks," Miller said of the $500,000 grant. "Because of that, we don't have that burden on the purse account, so we were able to bring back a couple of the open stakes and still maintain our overnight purses."
Just as preserving the Illinois Derby's grade 3 status played a role in the decision to revive that race, Hawthorne also wanted to keep the Gold Cup's grading. If a race has not been run for two or more years, or in two of the past three years, the American Graded Stakes Committee considers it ineligible for grading.
"That's a lot of it, especially with the Gold Cup, which is our most important and marquee race," Miller said. "The race didn't come up with as accomplished a bunch as you would have expected, but part of that had to do with the late announcement of the race."
Racing secretary Allan Plever agreed that the timing posed a problem.
"They (horsemen) didn't have it on their schedule, and that only gave us two months," he said, citing competition from the Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (G1) the same weekend at Churchill Downs and the short turnaround from the Breeders' Cup three weeks earlier. "Some of these guys already had their plans mapped out. ... Even though it's late November, it comes at a time when horsemen are shipping, heading South, and they've got to make a decision: Do I take this horse with me?"
That didn't diminish the enthusiasm of winning trainer Brendan Walsh, who watched from Kentucky as DARRS Inc.'s Scuba ran down Futile in the final strides of the 1 1/4-mile Gold Cup. It was the second time that a Walsh trainee benefitted from Hawthorne's long homestretch. Multiplier captured the Illinois Derby in April in much the same fashion.
By sending his charges on the five-hour trip up Interstate 65 from Louisville, Ky., Walsh also affirmed his support for Chicago racing.
"Illinois has a warm place in my heart because when I first came to the States, I worked at Arlington (as assistant to Eddie Kenneally)," Walsh said. "(Arlington International Racecourse and Hawthorne) are two fine tracks, and with the population of the area, it's a travesty and the saddest thing I've seen in American racing that these tracks have struggled so much."
Horsemen who often criticize Arlington for funding its stakes program when overnight purses are down rarely express the same sentiments toward Hawthorne.
"We don't put that much into (our stakes)," Plever said. "Our crosstown partners (Arlington) probably get more static than we do. They're top-heavy with stakes, while we've cut the stakes. I think they (the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association) appreciate that we've cut that."
ITHA president Mike Campbell pointed to Illinois' controversial "recapture" rules as a bigger problem. The statute is slanted in favor of track owners over horsemen, he asserted.
"All that has to be done is one of two things: either the state has to honor its own law that says it shall appropriate money to reimburse the purse account with respect to recapture—$11 million a year as applied to Standardbreds and Thoroughbreds—or the tracks need to defer or eliminate recapture on their own," Campbell said.
With the ITHA having grown frustrated after years of seeking remedies from the executive and legislative branches of state government, Campbell has mapped out a plan to pursue judicial relief.
"I've tried all other avenues, but I have been let down consistently," he said. "I believe the law says the money shall be appropriated, and 'shall' doesn't mean maybe or possibly."