TrackNotes: Casino Crazy & Whitney Day

There's a great Twilight Zone episode where two-bit armed robber gambling punk Larry Blyden is shot dead by police. He wakes up in a fabulous suite with Sebastian Cabot apparently his butler.

He can have anything he wants, and the big guy - don't deny yourself the Pritzker metaphor - means ANYTHING. The food is exquisite, the booze flowing, the dames at his feet and . . . and the dice are rolling, the cards flushing and the one-armed bandits cherries across. Every time. EVERY TIME.

This is no diss to Mr. French, but from now on, I will see our two-bit robbing city, county and state politicians as fat white-suited satans.

Now, just as sure as Lake Michigan is five feet higher and risin', the Chicago metropolitan area and various points Downstate will be washed by the saturation of gambling in all forms. And it's not for just fun.

Like Sky Masterson before us, we'll warble our plea that luck be a lady tonight. The good news is that, like the moon, there's a bright side and a dark side.

The bulletin came through Thursday that Hawthorne Race Course will cancel its Spring 2020 meet in order to build a new casino.

Casino? I thought just race- and sportsbooks, and slots. But this Hawthorne thing is the big magilla. It will include everything a Las Vegas casino has, all that and table games.

Hawthorne Director of Publicity and Racing Analyst Jim Miller only affirmed the same when I asked him about certain plans, including configuration of the Hawthorne plant. Hawthorne is holding specifics close to the vest.

Hawthorne will submit an application to the Illinois Gaming Board by the end of August, but it already seems a done deal. For Fairmount Park in Downstate Collinsville as well, which is estimating $50 million in facility improvements.

"With approval we anticipate beginning construction as quickly as possible," Miller said. "Because of this, we will have a brief period next spring where we cannot conduct racing during the day while construction is going on."

Hawthorne sits on 119 acres in Stickney, between the Stevenson and Eisenhower and spanning the land between Cicero Avenue and Laramie. The main track is a mile and features one of the longest home stretches in the country. Its back door is inches from the Cicero city line and the site of the 2009-demolished Sportsman's Park, a sad story perpetrated by the genius Bidwills of Chicago Cardinals fame.

Conversely, the Carey family has owned Hawthorne since 1909, with requisite ups and downs along the way, including a challenging racing economic climate for several years now, and a serious outbreak of equine herpes, not unique to Hawthorne, in 2012 that necessitated a quarantine lockdown.

I've always liked Hawthorne because management and the people who go there do it for one reason: horse racing. They have different areas there, with simulcast in a big concourse, the Gold Cup Room with service and tiered rows of tables, a spot for handicapping club members and betting tournaments, and rows and rows of seats just like the ballpark, if you wish. It's all glassed in as protection against the various types of weather it sees, in both Thoroughbred and Standardbred (harness) racing. You don't feel a caste system, as at so many other sports venues.

Like Phil Georgeff before him, Peter Galassi is as good a race announcer as America has.

It's not as pretty as Arlington Park, but I've never seen Miller Lite-fisted wiseguy posers with small straw fedoras at Hawthorne. Thankfully.

I will admit I haven't paid much attention to the nuances of gambling expansion in Illinois. I just figured new politicians, floodgates open, scoundrels scrambling for pieces of pie and then it will be here.

The buzzwords around here have been five casino licenses, sportsbooks, and wagering at sports venues!(?)

In the horse racing world, Illinois tracks have begged for slots since BTN - Before TrackNotes - and since racinos like Charlestown, Parx, Indiana Downs and many other bull rings got them.

Don't ever forget that Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI) owns Arlington Park. While Hawthorne and Fairmount got ahead of it all in making their splashy announcements, CDI must be considered a honey badger in the thicket, perhaps with claws out, skids already greased, as it will most assuredly disembowel all obstacles to get what it wants.

Think I'm kidding? When CDI changed from purse winnings to a point system for Kentucky Derby eligibility, it shut out Hawthorne's Illinois Derby, a race run since before Arlington's existence. It was mean-spirited and vicious. Hey AP, next time your grandstand burns down, maybe Hawthorne will be nice enough to run your races for you and you get 12 percent. Or maybe not.

While the Illinois Derby has been run at various tracks, primarily Sportsman's, it's now at home at Hawthorne, although its running has been spotty, only once in the last four years. But we've seen fine horses like Ten Most Wanted, Pollard's Vision, Cowtown Cat, Multiplier and your 2002 Illinois and Kentucky Derby parlay, War Emblem.

CDI pushed into majority ownership of Rivers Casino in Des Plaines and plans on expanding that facility and also seeking another casino license outright. From what I've seen in simple searches, they also have a right under this legislation to establish a real casino footprint at Arlington itself, just like Hawthorne.

In a dilemma only a mini-monopoly would suffer, what will CDI do, with Des Plaines so close to Arlington Park? For that matter, what about the collision of the concentric circles of all these casinos' markets? At some point in the foreseeable future, there will have to be some shakeout.

The bright side of this moon is that Illinois' gambling legislation requires that the three racetracks continue live racing as a requisite in keeping the gaming license.

"(Hawthorne's) goal is to revitalize racing in the state of Illinois," Miller said. "We want to bring back prestigious races like the Hawthorne Gold Cup and Illinois Derby. Additionally, we want to offer a daily racing product that is on par with the top circuits in the country and we believe this legislation will allow us to do just that."

By rights, that's as it should be. Horses I can think of like Seabiscuit (came but rained out), Equipoise (both tracks), Coaltown, Round Table (both tracks), Kelso, Dr. Fager, Manassas, Citation, Damascus, John Henry, Cigar, Cryptoclearance and, of course, Secretariat all trod these parts. Let's aspire again.

Arlington hasn't been relevant in dirt - or artificial surface - races in many years. Fine, let Arlington have its vaunted turf program and let Hawthorne lead on the dirt. These new resources should free both of them to do what they want, playing to their strong points.

But TrackNotes will also issue this clarion call: Hawthorne needs to be a leader in all measures to reduce horse deaths, of which it has had more than its share. The Illinois Racing Board must lead on severely limiting or eliminating drugs in horses, race day or not. Just DO IT!

This is the opportunity these tracks have demanded, cajoled, cried for, complained about and survived for. Fans have been waiting for this too, with the caveat that it improves racing here. Let's see who does it better.

* * * * *

On a short note, ignorance is one thing, but stupidity is what comedy is made of, unless it's really happening.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has selected five sites for the Chicago casino feasibility study: Harborside (111th Street and the Bishop Ford Freeway), the former Michael Reese hospital (31st Street and Cottage Grove); Pershing and State; Roosevelt and Kostner; and the former U.S. Steel parcel (80th Street and Lake Shore Drive).

I don't know how you do it, but the casino must be located in a place that has other things. These arguments have me wondering. What possible knowledge can these dense politicians think they possess about the economic impacts of casinos?

Except everybody knows that dropping a casino in neighborhoods crushed and exploited by the Daleys and Emanuels - and so many before them - of this world intensifies the misery. At least this time, Lightfoot seems like just a more genteel version of a knucklehead politician.

I'd vote for Sebastian Cabot any day, but he's dead.

* * * * *

Oh, we have racing today.

Your big one is Saratoga's Whitney Stakes (Grade I, nine furlongs, 1-1/8 miles, $1,000,000).

Never call "a race for the ages" or race of the year before it's run, please. Which is what some people did earlier this week.

The hook was having the top four horses in the Breeders' Cup Classic "rankings." McKinzie, Thunder Snow, Vino Rosso and Preservationist. Don't try to find the purpose of those rankings, there is none. All that counts is who's in the gate in November and what their odds are, okay?

Well, Frosty, Thunder Snow was scratched Saturday morning with a fever and cough. Hey touts, see where he's never won in America? That's a burden lifted for me.

Vino Rosso will now take more money, but he has killed me in the past. Like a German techno band, he was a one-hit wonder for the longest time after winning the 2018 Wood Memorial, taking way too much money along the way. He won the $155K Stymie at Aqueduct in March and just beat the nice Gift Box and Lone Sailor last out in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita. Call me at 4:30, we'll pour a pinot noir, and tell me what to do with him.

Preservationist, six years old, has only run eight times. But he won his first and only stakes race, the Grade II Suburban last out at Belmont, beating the VERY highly regarded Catholic Boy by open lengths. He's won four of his last five, thriving under the Jimmy Jerkens/Junior Alvarado trainer/rider combo. 3-1 morning line? I'll take it.

Bob Baffert's McKinzie will be your favorite. Straight out for the win, I'm not sure, as he's had some tendency for finishing second by whiskers. He runs in good company, but has never beaten a top-top horse. But just LOOK at those seven triple-digit Beyer Speed figures! Easy, he should be in the Exacta. Queasy, his low price will hurt the Exacta. But I'll have to include him.

I'll have an eye on Monongahela at a price, based solely on a 12-point improvement 102 in the Philip Iselin, Grade III, last out at Monmouth.

Keep an eye on favored Serengeti Express, Bellafina and Covfefe in The Test (Grade I, seven furlongs, $500,000) in what could be a great race.

I got a hot tip from the-other-fox Valley Fan Girl. Race 11, $80K allowance for New York-breds, 5-1/2 furlongs, turf. Jack the Cat, the 9 horse. Son of Courageous Cat (Storm Cat), the Tom Albertrani trainee looks on the rise with a 9-point Beyer improvement last out in his first win. He's three years old, so room for improvement. 12-1 morning line. I like the switch last and today to Kendall Kendrick Carmouche in the irons.

NBCSportsNet weakens with just one hour at 4 p.m. to cover the Whitney. FoxSports2 does a good job up to 4. Then there's always TVG if you're desperate. streams the races.


Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.

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