By Mike Paradise
It’s good to see Fox Valley Gemini, by far the most popular Standardbred racing in Illinois, back in on Friday’s card. After three consecutive Open victories, and the last two in impressive fashion, I was worried he might have to go elsewhere to be raced.
Instead, he was “handicapped” by the Hawthorne Race Office, with the 10-hole in the second race, five-horse field. It’s a tactic that has been done previously at a Hawthorne meet and more often than not it’s ended a horse’s winning streak.
I have no problem with the ploy. Just like Fox Valley’s Gemini’s connections, and his many facing fans, I want the now two-time Illinois Harness Horse of the Year to race in our state.
Horse racing like any other sport needs its stars players, or in our case horses, to become poplar enough to actually attract people to its venues.
There was a time we had those types of horses in Illinois. Pacers like Taser Gun at Maywood, Big Tom at Balmoral, or go all the way back to Rambling Willie, who packed them in at Sportsman’s many years ago.
What if Fox Valley Gemini wins again Friday night? What’s next? Make him start 20 yards behind the field? Tell his connections to leave the state with the star ICF pacer if they want him raced?
The answer, of course, is to attract stronger fields for “Gemini” to compete against. And, no a $12,000 purse won’t get those kind of horses to the Chicago circuit. Maybe a $20,000 or $25,000 pot will do it.
“I’m not suggesting we take another $10,000 or $15,000 out of the current purse account every week and add it to the Open’s purse, but Hawthorne is in the gambling business, so I’m suggesting the track does a little gambling on the future of Illinois horse racing.
It’s likely the track, and three of its OTB parlors, will have its slots and table games raking in the dough sometime next year. Recapture would then finally be in the rear-view mirror and Illinois harness racing purses will start to shoot up, perhaps dramatically.
But why wait? How about those $25,000 Opens right now.
To avoid the “carpetbaggers” from the east coming in and taking our dough and then leaving town, for now make the Opens restricted to Illinois owned or bred pacers.
Instead of waiting for the Night of Champions to lure the best ICF horses in the country to town for just that one start, maybe we can get some of those same top-notch Illinois breds to race at Hawthorne, 3, 4 or 5 times this summer.
The track would be investing in its future product and at the same time likely increasing its Saturday handle, with larger and better Open fields.
It’s really not much of a gamble for Hawthorne. The money for the Open increases will be there. It’s just not there yet. They would just be borrowing on future revenue.
Next year Illinois will have its lowest numbers of 2-year-olds in its history. It took a long time for its breeding industry to hit rock bottom, but it has. Why wait to begin the long road back to prosperity for Illinois bred horses and their owners?
Let’s begin with the incentives for people to buy ICF yearlings and for those with good broodmares to breed to Illinois stallions, and let’s start right now.