CHICAGO – Hawthorne Race Course, the oldest racetrack in Illinois and one of the most venerable in North America, kicks off the start of the 2007 Chicago thoroughbred season on Friday, February 23. Post time for the first of nine races will be at 1:10 CST.
Following a three-day opening weekend with a day off on February 26, Hawthorne will adopt a Thursday through Monday schedule until the Spring meet closes on April 29.
Track president and general manager Tim Carey is optimistic that competitive racing, a well-intentioned stakes program highlighted by the prestigious Illinois Derby, facility improvements, and popular promotions will attract fans to the west side oval. Of course, decent weather would help, too.
“The weather is always a factor at this time of year. If we can catch a break, I think we will have a good meet,” said Carey, who will oversee his first Spring session. In recent years the National Jockey Club has conducted the Spring meet at Hawthorne, but did not seek dates from the Illinois Racing Board for 2007. “I’m looking to satisfy our fans with good racing and a comfortable facility to enjoy themselves. I think we made strides with the changes that were introduced last Fall, but we will be even better this year.”
Hawthorne improved its facility with a reduction makeover last September and made additional tweaks in the last month. The new-look grandstand sports new simulcasting and concessions areas and more flat-screen televisions are in place to compliment the 50 installed last year. Horse owners and trainers will have an improved horsemen’s lounge to visit that will include table service.
“We reduced the size of our facility and changed the lighting to make it more intimate. Given the current market conditions, 70,000 square-feet was too cavernous,” Carey said. “Our upgraded food quality, more TV’s and the horsemen’s lounge will provide a better atmosphere for the people and our fans who make the show what it is.”
Racing secretary Gary Duch is doing his best to find the right combination of races to insure the largest fields possible. He expects 1,400 horses to be on the grounds for Opening Day, about two-thirds of capacity. More horses will arrive in March when the weather starts to warm and southern meets conclude. Duch has scheduled the first added-money race of the season for March 10 with the Regal Rumor Stakes.
The highlight of the $1.6 million stakes menu is the $500,000 Illinois Derby (Grade II) for 3-year-olds on April 7. It serves as a major prep race for the Kentucky Derby and produced the Run for the Roses hero War Emblem in 2001; last year’s winner, Sweetnorthernsaint, finished seventh as the favorite. Other significant races include a pair of $250,000 events on April 21 – the National Jockey Club Handicap and Sixty Sails Handicap. Illinois Champions Day, a series of six $100,000 races, is set for April 28.
Duch is looking for another competitive season on the track. Most of the top trainers and jockeys have returned and will be ready to go on Opening Day. Chris Emigh, who dominated the jockey standings in Chicago last year and won 102 races at Hawthorne last Fall, is back and will be joined by veterans Eddie Baird, Jose Ferrer, Shane Laviolette, Eduardo Perez and Carlos Silva, among others. Also returning is the up-and-coming Israel Ocampo, a 20-year-old who won 53 races and finished third at the last meet. New-comers Terry Houghton and Derek Bell have won titles in Florida and in the Midwest.
Frank Kirby and Tom Tomillo, 1-2 in the trainer standings, each have 60 stalls for the meet. Roger Brueggemann, Jimmy DiVito, Tom Dorris, Christine Janks and Mike Reavis are set to go, as is Richard Hazelton, a long-time force in Chicago every Spring.
Besides the creature comforts, racing fans have some interesting options. Hawthorne produced a few large carryover pools for its Pick 6 wager (races 4-9) last year. By lowering the takeout from 25 to 16 percent and adding a consolation payout, management now expects the pool to grow quickly. Also, the popular handicapping tournaments are back. The road to the $50,000 Midwest Championship (March 31-April 1) begins February 25 and continues on the first four Sundays in March. The top five finishers in each, $3,000 preliminary tournament gains a free entry into the championship event.
Hawthorne Race Course is scheduled to conduct 119 thoroughbred and 39 harness live programs in 2007. Located at Cicero or Laramie Avenues at 35th Street, gates open daily at 10 am. Call (708) 780-3700 or visit the Web site at www.hawthorneracecourse.com.