Cautious optimism in Illinois racing

Illinois racing has its problems. There is no longer Arlington Park, there will only be 64 days of racing this year and the track will close in mid-summer. But with the 2022 season set to kick off Saturday at Hawthorne, officials at that track predict sailing this year will be challenging but not impossible.

“How are we going to do? I can tell you more on Wednesday when we put out the first card,” said Racing Secretary Al Plever. “But I think we’re going to be fine.”

The Hawthorne Spring Competition is 34 days long and runs through June 25. When Arlington ran, the races moved there in the summer before moving back to Hawthorne in the fall. That gave jockeys a seven-month racing season that consisted of 118 days last year. But Hawthorne won’t hold a summer meet because it must also host two harness racing meets each year. That means there will be no Thoroughbred racing in the Chicago area for most of the summer, from June 26 until a 30-day fall meet begins on September 23.

The fear was that the gap in the summer would cause an exodus out of Illinois, with riders choosing a track where there were more racing opportunities and they wouldn’t have to pack their bags in the summer.

“At the end of June, we’re all going to have to go,” said trainer Mike Campbell, former president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Jockey Association. “The problem that we all face is having to leave our homes. I will not live in my house here for more than four months of the year. That is a problem. Everyone is in the same boat.”

But Plever said only a handful of Illinois regulars have left and stalwarts like Larry Rivelli, who will have 80 horses at Hawthorne, have remained loyal. Most have found a place to call home for the summer. The best option seems to be Canterbury Park. The Minnesota track will have 65 days of live racing, beginning May 18 and ending September 17. In an effort to attract Chicago jockeys, Canterbury has created a bonus package for Illinois horses. A Thoroughbred starter who has raced at Illinois in 2021 or 2022 but has not previously started at Canterbury will be eligible for a $1,000 bonus on his first start of the 2022 season.

“It’s going to be a little bit different this year because people used to stay here almost all year long and now we have a couple of months where they’re in limbo,” said John Walsh, Hawthorne’s assistant general manager. “They can go to Canterbury, which is a great track that has grass racing. When they’re done there, they can come back in the fall and I think we’ll also have some kind of bonus program for the horses that come from Canterbury. I haven’t heard of too many people staying away.”

Campbell said he will spend the summer at Colonial Downs and knows of other trainers at Indiana Grand, Prairie Meadows and Ohio racetracks.

One of the reasons jockeys are committing to Hawthorne is that this year will see a significant increase in the purse. At around $120,000 a day in 2021, Hawthorne had one of the smallest purses in the sport. This year, the off-season simulcast money bet in Illinois doesn’t have to be shared with Arlington and the jockeys also got a year’s subsidy from the state. Plever said purses will average about $190,000 a day this year with purses for inaugural special weight races rising from $22,000 to $40,000.

Walsh also thinks a later start (Hawthorne typically opened a month earlier) will help.

“We may be off to a little bit of a slow start, but I think by May we will be 40 to 50 percent better than we have been in some of the last few spring meetings,” Walsh said. “We are going to have more turf races. Weather wise, we are sure to have some decent days in May and June. When you run in March and April, it can rain or even snow and you find it hard to even get to the grass court. I think we’ll do much, much better and the signal will look better with a little green grass instead of everything being grey.”

But there will be challenges. Thoroughbreds used to be able to train at Hawthorne when it was closed for the winter, but due to the harness competition, which didn’t end until March 20, that wasn’t possible. Since the track doesn’t open for training until Monday, five days before opening day, there will be a number of horses that aren’t ready to start yet. Plever said there were 400 horses on the ground Monday and he expected another 200 to 300 to arrive by Saturday. It may not sound like much, but Hawthorne, for the entirety of April, will be running just two days a week, on Saturdays and Sundays.

Long term, Hawthorne should be fine. He is working in a casino and the added money should generate a generous increase in the bags. There is also hope that a new harness track will be built somewhere in Illinois, which would mean Hawthorne could go back to racing just Thoroughbreds.

“This meeting is the start of something,” Walsh said. “Once the casino opens, that will really energize things. Now we have a timeline. Over time, these portfolios here are going to skyrocket.”