By Mike Paradise
When Hawthorne got what it wanted from the Illinois Racing Board at the Race Date Hearings, no 2017 winter harness meeting and only an 80-night summer session, it may discover “it won the battle but lost the war.”
This year’s winter meet was a money-maker for the racetrack and without it Hawthorne’s not-so-hot summer meet would have been poorer handle-wise, horse wise, and driver and trainer wise.
Seven long months without harness racing on the Chicago circuit will insure that next year’s figures plunge even-more. Yes that’s just my opinion and while I want to be an optimist, I am a realist.
No winter meet next year was primarily done by Hawthorne to accommodate the thoroughbred horsemen who want to use the track as a training facility until their first meet opens on March 2. Meanwhile the harness horsemen wanted to be at Hawthorne in January to eke out a living.
The Standardbred stables still in Illinois will have no option but to leave the state for other racing venues. If Hawthorne really thinks they are all coming back to race for smaller purses on a racing surface that wasn’t up to par on many a night, they are living in a Dream World,
Revenue wise 2016 will be a very good year for Hawthorne
The racetrack was the night-time host track for full-card simulating all of 2016 and its cut this year will be over $7 million dollars. Add another $900,000-plus in “Recapture” money from the harness horsemen’s purse account, and you can see there is no need to have any fund raising events for the Hawthorne shareholders.
And in 2017 “Recapture” taken out of the harness horsemen’s purse account will grow to about $1.5 million. The primary reason is that this year Hawthorne purchased the Oak Brook and Crestwood OTBs after Balmoral and Maywood Parks went belly-up. Both are older parlors hence they produce additional steady stream of more “Recapture” revenue to the racetrack unlike a newer OTB would.
As pointed out in the IHHA pre-race date letter to the Racing Board: Requesting only 80 race dates from May to September, would reduce racing opportunities by over 22% from 2016 and by a staggering 69% in just the past six years.”
I asked Casey Leonard if he was going elsewhere to drive until Hawthorne starts back up next summer and he replied: “I prefer not to go anywhere. I’ve sold quite a few of our horses and sent a few to my brother Ross (Leonard).”
“Actually I’m pursuing other options,” continued the 39-year-old Harvard, Illinois native. “I’m considering getting out of the business entirely. I don’t have any faith in this business anymore. It’s not growing. At one time the handle supported the purses but that’s not the case anymore and seven months in between meets is a long time.”
If Casey isn’t back at Hawthorne next year the Leonard’s Illinois string of horses could also be missing, or trimmed down substantially and the meet’s third leading stable sent out over 175 horses postward this summer.
Leonard had 566 less drives in 2016 than last year and over 800 less than in 2014. This year his drives totaled 1,116 compared to 2,517 just four years ago in 2013.
Casey came on board this year as an elected IHHA Director and it didn’t take him long to realize: “We have no leverage to get anything changed.”
Casey is right.
The horsemen have no input on the mutuel handle, their only source of income to the purse account. The racetrack controls it all. The marketing of the sport (or in this case the lack of it) the time in between races, the number of races, the combining of races, the first (always delayed) first post, even the decision to have a non-working air-conditioning system in the Hawthorne Grandstand that certainly had to put a dent into the on-track handle during Chicago’s record hot summer.
Besides its cut from the mutuel handle the racetrack gets all of the admission money, all of the parking revenue, all program money and all the concession money generated on-track and at its OTBs, and all the advertising in the track program and at its facility.
Even some IRB rules are one-sided.
For example: If a trainer is late by one minute with his or her horse to the destination barn for Lasix, IRB rules state that the horse must be scratched. On the other hand, the racetrack can delay by up to an hour its time between races got horses racing on Lasix without any sort of penalty.
An evenhanded rule? I don’t think so.
With the 2016 Illinois harness racing in the rear view mirror, this will be my last column for the year. I hope to be back next season. Until then, good health, stay safe, and my sincere thanks for being a reader