First Illinois harness racing pari-mutuel meet of the year opens Saturday at Hawthorne

by Neil Milbert

As the calendar year is entering the homestretch, harness horses in Illinois are leaving the starting gate.

The gate will begin rolling for the state’s only extended pari-mutuel meeting Saturday night (Sept. 9) at 7:10 CDT at Hawthorne Race Course.

Opening night will bring out Illinois racing’s three superstars — the 9-year-old trotting mare Anna’s Lucky Star, the 8-year-old gelding pacer Fox Valley Gemini and the 6-year-old male pacer He’zzz A Wise Sky.

Anna’s Lucky Star, who will compete in an $11,000 open trot, has won her last two starts — her only pari-mutuel outing in nine races this year — giving her a 140-race career composite of 60 wins, 26 places and 13 shows for a bankroll of $646,360.

Fox Valley Gemini and He’zzz A Wise Sky will renew their rivalry in an $11,000 open pace. He’zzz A Wise Sky has done all of his racing this year in pari-mutuel outings, making 12 starts and relegating Fox Valley Gemini to second-place finishes in the last two. Those were the only two pari-mutuel races this year for Fox Valley Gemini, a six-time winner in 2023, whose claim to fame is being the only horse in history to be victorious in Hawthorne’s main event, the Night of Champions, for six consecutive years.

Fox Valley Gemini has a 115-race career record of 59-25-11 and earnings of $724,519, while He’s A Wise Sky has a 90-race record of 41-22-11 and earnings of $595,395.

On opening night there will be 13 races with 115 starters and 13 horses on the also-eligible list.

In the weeks that follow there will be racing Friday, Saturday and Sunday through Dec. 31 for a total of 49 programs.

“Nothing has been finalized but we’re hoping we can go into January and February for six or seven more weeks,” said Marty Engel, president of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association (IHHA). “And then as early as possible in June go back to Springfield and DuQuoin before reopening at Hawthorne in September or October of 2024.

“There wasn’t pari-mutuel racing this past summer, but at least we had race dates and purse money to keep the horsemen going. It’s difficult when there’s no income for a long stretch of time. There aren’t as many owners as there used to be. Now, many of the owners are trainers and they don’t have any income unless they’re racing.”

The races were funded from Hawthorne’s purse account.

Tim Norman, the Illinois Department of Agriculture bureau chief who oversees the harness and thoroughbred breeding programs, is a strong supporter of filling the Chicago schedule void by racing during the summer at the State Fairgrounds in Springfield (173 miles from Hawthorne and DuQuoin (276 miles away).

According to Norman, “We’re also looking the possibility of conducting pari-mutuel racing at the Fairgrounds during those summer months, certainly at Springfield, but probably not at DuQuoin because of the intra-structure it takes.”

The scheduling dilemma was created by Arlington International Racecourse’s corporate owner, Churchill Downs, Inc. (CDI), when it sold the palatial thoroughbred track for demolition and redevelopment after the 2021 meeting to eliminate racing and possible racino competition for a nearby casino in which it acquired a majority interest two years earlier.

When CDI wiped Arlington off the racing map dual-purpose Hawthorne was left as the only racetrack standing in the Chicago metropolitan area, creating an even more acute problem for thoroughbred horsemen, whose only other Illinois option is a significantly lower quality meeting at Fairmount Park, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.

Forced to time-share to survive the IHHA, in 2022 the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (ITHA) and Hawthorne divided the calendar into four segments and held split meetings. The standardbreds raced an aggregate total of 75 nights from Jan. 7-March 20 and from July 2-Sept. 11 and the thoroughbreds raced a combined total of 76 days from April 2-June 25 and from Sept. 23-Dec. 31.

This year, the parties agreed to a different arrangement with the thoroughbreds racing continuously from March 5-Sept.4, a total of 68 days, and the harness horses competing on the track for the four-month meeting that is beginning this weekend and conceivably could continue into February.

“We’re expecting a slight decrease in purses,” Engel said. “With this conservative approach we’re hoping we can go into January and February without another purse cut.

“We anticipate a good meeting. I think fans (of harness racing in the Chicago area) are anxious to come back.”

Kyle Wilfong, the leading driver at both the winter and summer meetings in 2022, will be returning “mainly on Sunday nights.”

“I’m driving at Hoosier from Tuesday through Saturday,” said the son of trainer Brett Wilfong, who moved his racing headquarters to a farm in Indiana because of the uncertainty of the Illinois situation. “I’ve picked up some nice accounts here.”

Kyle’s wife, Amy, assists his father and is a successful trainer in her own right. She will be in charge of the horses at Hawthorne.

“We’ll ship in a few horses to race occasionally,” Kyle said. “We’ve put in for five stalls, mainly to be able to ship in and ship out.”

Amy Husted, the wife of driver Kyle Husted, will be back after taking her first trainer title at the second 2022 meeting and so will Terry Leonard, who captured his fourth Hawthorne championship in five years at the first meeting, and his son, Casey Leonard, the perennial driving champion at the track before being dethroned by Wilfong last year.

Casey topped the standings at both the summer races at Springfield and at the State Fair pari-mutuel meeting at DuQuoin as did trainer Erv Miller, owner Doug Overhiser and breeder Fox Valley Standardbreds

Also excelling during the summer at Springfield was the runner-up to him in the driver standings, Cordarius Stewart.

“Cordarius is doing really well,” Norman said. “He has hooked up with Erv Miller, and that’s a big plus for him.”

Engel is in agreement, saying: “Cordarius is an up-and-coming superstar; he had an awesome summer.”

In addition to the twice weekly summer series of 14 programs at Springfield (with an average of 13.5 races per card) there were three programs at DuQuoin.

They were followed by the annual pari-mutuel meetings at the Springfield State Fair (Aug. 10, 11, 12, 16 and 17) and the DuQuoin State Fair (Aug. 28, 29 and 30).

However, Mother Nature curtailed the State Fair competition at Springfield.

“Four of the five days were rained out,” said Engel. In contrast, “all of the races at DuQuoin went without a hitch.”

Because of the cancellations at Springfield, Hawthorne has picked up most of the races that are qualifiers for the marquee event in Illinois racing, the Night of Champions for Illinois-breds on Oct. 14.

To accommodate the makeup races, Hawthorne has scheduled 18 races for Sunday and will begin the program at 4:30 p.m., 2 hours 40 minutes earlier than the normal starting time.

The card will have 134 contestants and purses will range from $17,250 to $41,000 in the Governor J.B. Pritzger, a race for 3-year-old colt and gelding pacers.

While Hawthorne’s thoroughbred meeting went according to plan, the planned $300 million transformation of the historic track into a racino as permitted by a massive Illinois gaming expansion bill in 2019 continues to proceed at a snail’s pace in the aftermath of preliminary demolition work at the track, starting in 2019.

A portion of the casino gambling gross revenue would be added to purses and IHHA executive director Tony Somone envisions a windfall of as much as $12 million, increasing the purse account to the neighborhood of $19 million.

However, while Hawthorne is in a virtual holding pattern, other newly-legalized casinos are seizing the opportunity by putting up temporary facilities prior to construction of a permanent location. A Medinah Temple temporary casino location in downtown Chicago, only about a half-hour from Hawthorne, is scheduled to open this Saturday, increasing the number of casinos in Illinois to 15.

Horsepeople fear that by the time the Hawthorne racino gets up and running the other new casinos will have carved out customer markets, thereby significantly diminishing its share of the potential revenue and purse money.