STICKNEY, IL -- It's not as if the idea came to Tim Carey like an inspiration. Night racing had been around for decades, and the harness racers did it all the time. Evening cards had come to Chicago before -- several times at Arlington Park and regularly at Balmoral -- but it had been a while, and the urge was strong to try something, anything, to boost attendance and increase handle.
Churchill Downs raced under lights at the end of their 2009 spring racing season, packing 33,481 fans onto the Louisville grounds for a wildly successful evening, and now tracks across the country were perking up, taking notice. It made sense to everyone. Your average Joe, working 9-5 in the city, had no chance to leave work for an afternoon card of racing that started at one. Give him late post on a Friday evening, first race off at 5:30 p.m., throw in $1 beer and a band; then he might be tempted.
"Racing on Friday night an incredible opportunity to witness the truly fast-paced, in-your face action of horseracing!" read the press release, a quote from Carey packaged with enthusiastic exclamation points.
So it was on a rainy October afternoon, 100 years into the history of a Chicago institution, that a fourth-generation track president sat in his office deep in the bowels of the sprawling monstrosity known as Hawthorne Race Course and hoped the masses, inspired by the track's first ever night racing under the lights, would think of his sport as entertainment once again.
Tim Carey took this track over in 2005. A graduate of the University of Arizona's racetrack management program, he inherited a history of stiff political battles mixed with a legacy of hard-earned success. The sport had been banned in Chicago 100 years earlier when Carey's great-grandfather, Thomas Carey, faced an uphill climb to resume operation after he purchased the track in 1909. He ran two races before the local sheriff shut him down.
Through the first quarter of the century racing at Hawthorne was an intermittent enterprise at best, but after racing was legalized again in 1922 and when the track was leased to the Chicago Business Men's Association from 1924-1946, the Illinois oval established itself as an innovative member of the national racing scene. In 1931 Hawthorne became the first major track in North America to use an electrical timer, and a state-of-the art infield tote board was installed the same year. Cutting-edge technology involving the use of infrared rays through the timing system was put into place in 1934 as a new paddock was also constructed. The track purchased the American Totalizator system in 1938, and Hawthorne's signature race, the Hawthorne Gold Cup, drew the best runners from across the country -- horses like Equipoise (1933), Discovery (1935), Challedon (1936), Round Table, who won it back-to-back in 1957 and 1958, Kelso (1960) and Dr. Fager (1967).
Hawthorne thrived under the leadership of Robert Carey, Thomas Carey's son, with the assistance of his son, Tom Carey, through the 1960s and '70s. In 1961, an all-new glass-enclosed Gold Cup Room was opened. In 1967, seating was increased by 2,500, Harness racing took place for the first time there in 1970, and on May 8, 1976, Hawthorne hosted the first quarter-horse race to be run at a pari-mutuel racetrack in Illinois.
Two years later, unknown arsonists started the fire of 1978 that burned the grandstand to the ground, doing $10-$14 million worth of damage while insurance only covered $3.4 million. Although the track reopened in 1980, its' glory days -- and the glory days of the industry -- were over.
Tom Carey ran the track following Robert Carey's death that year, but attendance slowly began to decline. By 2005 when a management shakeup caused Tom to step down and Tim was approached by his uncle, Tony, about assuming the presidency, the track was a nearly-vanished icon on the Chicago sporting scene.
The walls at Hawthorne are covered with black-and-white photos of great runners, owners, trainers, and jockeys recognizable from racing history. Sun Beau. Ben Jones. William Hartack. Players of that caliber no longer frequent the races here; heck, they've had a hard enough time getting good horses over at Arlington, the undisputed showcase track of the state's floundering racing industry. This Friday, when night racing returns for just the second time in Hawthorne history, there will be an event for $4,000 claimers -- about as far away from the glory of the Gold Cup as you can get.
The current track president thinks of increasing his track's exposure on a national level, of hosting a million dollar race and packing in the fans and bringing back the buzz, the excitement. But horse racing is hardly a high priority on the lists of legislators in a state with a budget deficit in the billions, and political issues at local and national levels continually block the industry's hopes of improvement.
A year ago today, Carey went public with a plan to apply for the tenth casino license in Illinois. It was an announcement that shocked prominent figures in both the racing and gaming circles; he had kept conceptualization of a $500,000-million casino and resort, to be constructed on the property where Hawthorne now stands, strictly confidential. A combination of pari-mutuel wagering and casino gambling would have made Hawthorne the first racino in Illinois, with a 15 percent share of revenues generated by the operation going to the state's horse racing industry, but the bid was turned down and Carey's plans for "a racing facility for this day and age" were tabled.
No 40,000 square foot casino and race track. No 300-room casino hotel; 150,000 square foot water park resort (with 400 all-inclusive suites). No bowling lounge, restaurants, or multi-screen movie theater. No partnership with Coach Mike Ditka, who attended the press conference announcing the bid to speak of "the magnitude of what can happen here."
"They knew back in 1999 when they issued the 10th license to Rosemont, that the racing industry in Illinois needed help," Carey says. "And yet to this day as we sit here right now we've not gotten dime one. We've passed legislation for three-percent impact fee that the upstate (gambling) boats pay us, $76 million dollars currently in the account, don't have a dime of that. Tenth license, don't have a dime of that. That's why Illinois racing is in the trouble it's in, because way back 10 years ago we were supposed to get monies we didn't get. It's really frustrating and it's really hard, because in order for it to survive we're going to have to have racinos."
When you walk through Hawthorne's outdated facility, it's easy to see how a new development would lure families, masses. Here, now, you are drawn only by love of the game, love of the wager, or love of the horse. For the average person, none of those factors -- individually or collectively -- possess a strong enough draw.
The place is still run, believe it or not, like a family business – 100 shareholders, each with a strong and equal vote, bonded by common interests and goals. It's still a safe dirt surface (an option Illinois horsemen appreciate given Arlington's 2007 switch to Polytrack), and every once in a while a race like the Illinois Derby comes along and a horse wins it and goes on to run in the Kentucky Derby and you think to yourself that this track is a vital part of the horse racing industry, should be respected as such.
For this fall/winter meet, at least, signs are indicative of a relatively strong season. Stall applications were up by more than 100 horses, trainers who would usually bring 5 runners shipping in 15, and field sizes should remain decent. Next year the track is trying out a strategic racing schedule (three days of live racing per week in February, four in March, five in April) to keep horsemen on the grounds and keep live racing around a little longer.
"Sure, we consider ourselves to be blue-collar, but we're very proud of what we are and we're very happy with that fact," Carey says. "We like who we are -- that quiet family business that just trudges along and makes it happen. I really do hope we're around for another 100 years. But with the racing scene in the US changing we have no choice not to change -- and the only way we can change is when we're enabled to do so by legislature. Until then, our hands are tied."
In the meantime, tricks like these -- night racing, food and drink promotions, simulcast events such as the upcoming "Breeders' Cup Palooza" -- will draw in the straggling crowds. Until something gives, that's about all Hawthorne management can hope to see.
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse Magazine, The Albany Times Union and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.