By Mike Paradise
While thoroughbred racing has been its staple for over a century at Hawthorne Race Course the Stickney, Illinois racetrack also has an abundance of harness racing tradition as well.
Its 2018 winter meet gets under way Friday night with a 10-race card and a 7:10 pm first post.
When Hawthorne conducted its first Standardbred meeting in 1970, some five decades ago, its initial drew meeting attracted some of the best pacers and trotters in the country and many of the sport’s top drivers and trainers.
Its inaugural meet drew subsequent National Hall of Famers Bob Farrington, Jim Dennis, Joe O’Brien, Don Busse, Del Insko, Bruce Nickells and Gene Riegle, along with eventual Illinois Hall of Fame horsemen Aubrey Petty, Jerry Graham and Joe Marsh Jr.
Farrington would become Hawthorne’s first leading driver with 33 winners in a meet that went from April 14 that year through May 22. Other memorable drivers that first year also included Walter Paisley, Jim Dolbee, Jack Williams, and Dwayne Pletcher.
Riegle’s Robert E. Adios would become the track’s first record holder pacer with a 1:59.3 clocking. The trot mark of 2:00.4 was established by Dayan (Bill Myers) who would go on to be named the 1971 Trotting Horse of the Year.
In 1972 the illustrious Speedy Crown, the Three-Year-Old Trotter of the Year in 1971, would equal the trotting track record with trainer Howard Beissinger, a 1975 National Hall of Fame inductee.
Also in 1972 Hawthorne’s track record would be demolished by the pacer Nansemond by more than two seconds with a 1:57.1 mile. The sport’s one-time lifetime dash champion Herve Filion (15,183) came to town to drive Nansemond.
Al La Carte Stable’s Sir Dalrae (Jim Dennis), the 1973 Harness Horse of the Year, was a “regular” in 1974 at Hawthorne and a frequent visitor to it’s winner circle. The National Hall of Fame pacer had victories in the Overcall and the Poplar Byrd Stakes before later annexing the Suburban Downs Pacing Derby in 158.1.
Dennis additionally trained and drove the popular pacer Rin Tim Tim to five Hawthorne triumphs that year including the Suburban Downs Pacing Final in late March.
Also in 1974 a lightly raced 4-year-old by the name of Rambling Willie came to Hawthorne for its Newcomer Series and the Bob Farrington Stable gelding became an instant hit with Chicago circuit fans.
Nine years later at the age of 13 the legendary Rambling Willie would surpass the great Niatross as North America’s as harness racing’s leading money winner with lifetime earnings of $2,088,218, “Willie” ended his racing career has the winningest harness horse with 128 victories with a record 79 sub 2:00 winning miles.
On-track $1 million mutuel handles were the norm at Hawthorne through the 1970’s. Its first meet handled an average of $1,009,985 with attendance averaging 11,696.
Hawthorne became the first Chicago Circuit track to handle over $2 million on-track for a single program when $2,018,873 went through its mutuel system on Saturday afternoon March 15, 1975,