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TrackNotes: Handicapping Hawthorne

Thoroughbred horse racing was having big problems before the economy blowed up real good. Primarily because of old, bad decisions and now a truly stupendous lack of unity, racing struggles with market share as Americans gamble more than ever.

In this environment, Hawthorne Race Course soldiers on. The last standing beam of Sportsman's Park, just north across the lot line from Hawthorne, hits the Cicero deck as this is written. Although victim of one of the most lunkheaded ideas (let's install an auto track!) ever - it was the victim of a colossal Bidwill, (the Bidwills have made enough of them to get their own noun) - can we really believe or dream that Sportsman's would have survived anyway?

Bay Meadows near San Francisco has already kissed the wrecking ball and days are numbered for its neighbor Golden Gate, and Hollywood Park down the coast.

Hard just north of the Stevenson, wedged between Cicero and Laramie and officially in Stickney, Hawthorne survives because of its philosophy, its people and perhaps the notion that its location does not spawn visions of fairway frontage at Del Boca Vista North.

Hawthorne is all about horse racing. That's why you go there and that's what you enjoy. If I had a kid, at that age when they're consumed with knowing things, like geography or batting averages, they'd be introduced to the Thoroughbreds here. No wagering allowed, of course.

The track was originally built in 1890 by Edward Corrigan, owner of the land and 1890 Kentucky Derby winner Riley. 1902, fire. 1905, racing banned. 1909, Thomas Carey purchases the track and unsuccessfully tries to race, thwarted by the sheriff. There was a 13-day meet in 1922, 25 days in 1925, and Hawthorne was by then off to the . . . The Hawthorne Gold Cup Handicap was first run in 1927, not too shabby. The Cup's list of winners is impressive. It includes Sun Beau (1929-1931), Equipoise (1933), Discovery (1935), Challedon (1936), Round Table (1957 and 1958), Kelso (1960) and Dr. Fager in 1967. More recently we have BlackTie Affair (1990), Awesome Again (1998), Perfect Drift (2003) and Student Council (2007). 1918's Kentucky Derby winner, Exterminator ran a walkover at Hawthorne.

As always seems to happen, another fire, this time arson, destroyed the 1959 clubhouse in 1978. The Carey family rebuilt and were back in business by 1980, holding races in the interim at Sportsman's. Hawthorne hosted Arlington's races when its grandstand burned in 1985.

The one-mile (real!) dirt oval surrounds a decent 6-furlong turf course that they're not afraid to use. The first electronic tote board was built in 1931 - while I don't think this is the original, its red brick and light-bulb numbers are definitely old school. There's no infield video (and no annoying and loud commercials, thank you), so while you may watch part of the race on the indoor monitors, you find yourself actually looking out on to the track most of the time to follow the race. Imagine that. I say indoor, because most of Hawthorne is indoors, its traditional grandstand glassed in to protect patrons from the fickle Stickney spring and fall weather. But you can still go outside and hang on the rail on a modest apron. The view is . . . industrial. Smokestacks and fuel storage tanks fill the distance while the roofs of the barns and the backside worker's dorms and Cicero Avenue splay just outside a tall white picket fence. You'll see the planes in and out of Midway, but I don't believe Hawthorne is ever in the landing pattern. The view? You're there for the racing.

Hawthorne has had to close off portions of the plant in response to the smaller crowds it draws. The remaining space bustles with people but does not feel crowded. The first floor is wide open, with the racing services center just off the entrance, a large two-sided bar in the middle and another bar and snack bar to the right. The horsemen's lounge is further to the right, with some individual carrels deployed near there as well. All kinds of tables and stadium-type seating are available. I prefer the Gold Cup Room upstairs where a large buffet ($16.95) anchors tiers of tables, all with individual flat panels, that cascade down toward the finish line. The food is very good with a carving station, omelet station and nice desserts. Plenty of tellers and machines throughout. Very once in a while, the betting machine will spit out a free $5 voucher or a free admission ticket for you. Nice.

While Hawthorne is a race track, it can also be considered a very large Off-Track Betting facility, which it is almost every day of the year, live racing or not. In deference to that, Hawthorne swung a deal with television manufacturer LG and plastered the plant with flat screens just itching to accept the high definition that is on the horizon. It's convenient and cool. You're never really out of view of your favorite track, especially that big one just outside.

Racing Secretary Gary Duch has a job on his hands. He has to get as many horses into each race with the horses he has on the grounds. That demands the creativity to write races that mix up the horses, rather than have the usual suspects always racing against each other. It's tough, especially in the spring. "A lot of secretaries around the country will acknowledge Hawthorne is one of the toughest to write races for in the spring," Duch says. He competes these days with Turfway, Fair Grounds and Oaklawn, the latter two being traditional wintering grounds for Chicago trainers and their horses. "The fall is easier. I love the fall."

The feeling here is that races have been better populated the last couple of years. Sure, you still see the five- or six-horse contest, but that happens everywhere. I find Hawthorne a tough place to handicap, there can be notable track biases. It's tough for closers much of the time. And, face it, these horses run more often than the pampered superstars so who's feeling good that day makes a difference. If you're patient, you can hit a nice profit or an occasional bomber.

You'll see everything from $4,000 claiming races to the Hawthorne Gold Cup and the Illinois Derby (GII). The Derby will be run next week, April 4, and it's difficult to say who will run. We've seen Sweetnorthernsaint and War Emblem (run at Sportsman's), who went on to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2001. Recapturetheglory, Pollard's Vision, and Ten Most Wanted have also won. It's a race that draws a name or two of those still needing money or a prep for the Kentucky Derby. It was moved ahead of the Derby from between the Derby and the Preakness in 2001 for just that reason.

The Grade II Sixty Sails Handicap for fillies and mares will be held April 18. The Gold Cup and the Robert F. Carey Memorial Handicap run October 3 and the Bill Hartack Memorial Handicap, formerly the National Jockey Club Handicap, runs November 21.

With racing the focus, Hawthorne delivers on the handicapping end. The Sun-Times has seen fit to continue running announcer Peter Galassi's (he's a fine announcer, underrated versus the national scene) picks on race days in the last extant coverage by our great metropolitan dailies. Assistant General Manager Jim Miller, Customer Communication/Education Manager Mitch Demick and handicapper Ron Duchman all offer picks and insights on the web site every racing day. That's generous picking for any track. Miller and Demick and track personality Katie Mikolay talk handicapping on the Hawthorne simulcast before the card, between races, online and in the half-hour race replay show I watch on TVG. Demick hosts Sunday School with Mitch, a weekly handicapping class and roundtable.

On the contest side, Hawthorne is wired into the Coast Casinos Horseplayer World Series in Las Vegas. Hawthorne is not a member of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA), so it does not send qualifiers to the NTRA-Daily Racing Form National Handicapping Championship. That's OK, the Coast contest is worth a lot of prize money itself, nearly $1 million. Qualifying in the spring and winning the $100,000 Hawthorne Handicapping Challenge in December will get you there, or you can get there through the Canterbury Park Claiming Crown Ultimate Handicappers Open, which you can play by winning the Hawthorne weekend spring series.

In affiliation with, Hawthorne has run the $100,000 Survivor Challenge this spring. Pick one win, place or show horse each day of the meet and survive and you win. The contest is now closed for this spring meet. The $10,000 Spring Challenge was held April 25. It's a real-money contest with a $20 entry fee, Club Hawthorne membership and a $200 minimum wagering voucher required.

Hawthorne has taken some heat for changes to its Club Hawthorne rewards program. Base level players earn a 1% rebate on all wagers on the premises, less than the one point per dollar wagered before. The more you wager, the more rewards. Wagering $1,000 in 30 days puts you at the Silver level and gets you 2% back on live racing wagers and other discounts. This is where Hawthorne would like you to be and it's fairly reasonable as profit or loss is often quite different than the amount you push through the window. It goes up from there to the Platinum level, where $15,000 wagered in 30 days gets you a 4% rebate. Hawthorne is working hard to compete with online wagering rebate shops.

Hawthorne lost its harness dates for this summer as the Johnstons of Balmoral and the harness horsemen worked a deal to reduce their racing days in the interest of increasing purses on the days they do race. Hawthorne got caught in the squeeze. (Yes, that's the same John Johnston caught on one of the Blagojevich tapes.) The Illinois legislature long ago promised a cut of casino handle to all the race tracks but has failed to deliver. Slots at the track is by no means the panacea, as experience is showing elsewhere, but Hawthorne and Arlington are trying to get them. When the 10th casino license went out for bid, Hawthorne quickly drew up plans for a casino, resort and entertainment complex that, given Illinois politics, probably never had a chance.

But through it all, Hawthorne has focused on what it does best. Horse racing. If you want to get a feel for the game, it's a great way to go

On The Triple Crown Trail
The trail was quiet this week with the lone prep of note being the Lane's End at Turfway. Hold Me Back went wide, closed in and drew off after a somewhat quick pace to take the race, with Flying Private taking second. West Side Bernie is in the Derby if he wants, but he finished fifth. Bittel Road didn't do a thing and finished seventh, Orthodox eighth. Who knows what it proves. I'll say one thing, the flyup from the synthetic track at Turfway is pathetic. It looks like a really old Western where the Black Hat Gang gallops into town in a huge cloud of dust. Looks more like nuke test fallout. I'm amazed the jockeys don't wear masks. The horses can't. It's bush.

This week is the Florida Derby (ESPN, 4 p.m.) at Gulfstream, Big Brown's launch pad to the Roses last year. This year, Quality Road and Dunkirk will get almost all of the attention. Quality Road because he's a quality horse and Dunkirk because he's run two visually lights out races. That's right, two. He did not race as a two-year-old. The last to do that and win the Derby was Apollo in . . . 1882. Curlin tried it last year. The big gray is a fun horse to watch, but in this one his odds will be terrible, so try to beat him. Importantly, Dunkirk has to win this race to get into the Derby because he has no graded stakes earnings. $150,000 is pretty much the cutoff for the Derby. Theregoesjojo also needs the money. He has only $58,000 plus enough for a Metra Zone B Monthly in his saddle bag and that won't get him to the twin spires.

FYI, Todd Pletcher plans to send the rabbit Europe to engage the other pace leaders for Quality Road. I always love it when the rabbit thinks he can win, takes a good lead and then his stablemate has to run like hell to catch him. Rabbits don't always work. Theregoesjojo will also draw some attention, but he should be a decent price.

Eye on Dubai
It feels like it always sneaks up on me, but Saturday is Dubai World Cup Night from Nad Al Sheba, the richest day of racing in the world, highlighted by the $6 million Dubai World Cup (G1) at about 10 furlongs. You'll get it on HRTV or TVG at about 9 a.m. Saturday and it's cool to watch because they have a mobile mounted camera that rolls right along with the horses. You get a good feel for how fast they're going. The between-race snippets of the pageantry are interesting to watch, and there's no wagering on the premises! I surmise the phone lines between Dubai and the London bookies are burning. The six-race card compares to our Breeders Cup with the other five race purses ranging from $1 million to $5 million. So turn off the cartoons, stock up on the Frosted Flakes and 2%, brew some strong java and fire up the online wagering account. It's a fun time.


Thomas Chambers is the Beachwood's man on the rail. He brings you TrackNotes every Friday. You can reach him here.

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