Harness Racing at Hawthorne Has Become a Unique Tradition

When you think of harness racing, Hawthorne Racecourse doesn’t roll off the tongue. In fact, when I think of Hawthorne, I think Illinois Derby, the 1 1/8 mile thoroughbred race in late April that often serves as a prep for the Preakness, the second jewel of the thoroughbred Triple Crown.  But Hawthorne does something that no other track does — it hosts both Standardbreds and thoroughbreds on the same track.

Now, before you say, “Woodbine does too,” note that Woodbine has separate tracks — two for thoroughbreds and one for Standardbreds.  At Hawthorne, both breeds run on the same track.  How that’s done is intriguing to say the least.

My non-racing fans often assume that a track can run thoroughbreds and Standardbreds on the same track on the same day.  When I tell them that is impossible because thoroughbred racing requires tons more sand, they are surprised.  It’s one of the many reasons why thoroughbred tracks like Aqueduct will cancel winter racing while Monticello and the Meadowlands will carry on with their racing cards.

Thoroughbreds need what is called “cuppy” or deep dirt, while the trotters and pacers need much less.  On a cold day instead of that dirt being cuppy, it’s hard as a rock and unsafe for racing.  Pacers and trotters can run over a hard surface, not with ease, but they can. In fact, many harness tracks have very little dirt, relying on limestone and other crushed rock surfaces.  If you ran high school track in the 1970s and 80s, you likely ran on a fly ash or limestone type surface that is quite similar to what pacer and trotters race on.

Hawthorne-Harness

Hawthorne Racecourse (photo via YouTube).

So, how does Hawthorne do it?  How does it conduct thoroughbred racing on Dec. 29 and Standardbred racing on Jan. 5?  Well, for starters, a lot of dirt is removed — about 11,000 tons of it — to ready the track for Standardbred racing.  Next is the rail, which is taken down and replaced by pylons.  The entire process takes about 72 straight hours to complete and, this year, it was done in sub-zero temperatures that impacted much of the country in late December and early January.

Why would Hawthorne — or any track — take on this task? At one point, there were three harness tracks in operation in the Land of Lincoln, but Balmoral and Maywood closed and there were fears that harness racing in Illinois might be over and done with.  Hawthorne, which has hosted harness racing for years, decided to offer more dates to make up for the loss, but with the additional dates came additional work.

There is a lot of moving and shaking to keep everybody happy and to keep both sports going.  The harness meet runs January and February and then picks up again in May and runs through September.  The thoroughbred meet runs in March and April and then again in October-December.  That requires removing and adding, adding and removing, to make the track ready for both types of racing.

Hawthorne, like the Meadowlands and the Red Mile, races on a one-mile oval and, as we know, bettors like one-mile ovals. On opening weekend (January 5-7) all-source handle was $1,011,159, $990,338 and $755,376 respectively.  On Friday, Jan. 26, handle was $983,619.  Those are very good numbers for a harness track.  In fact, only the Meadowlands handles more on a nightly basis than HRC.

Not only is the race course versatile, so too are its workers. Track announcer Peter Galassi calls both the thoroughbreds and the Standardbreds, something you won’t hear or see guys like Larry Colmus, Travis Stone and Dave Rodman do.

The track won’t wow you with high purses and stakes races.  On Friday, Feb. 2, the feature was a $10,000 open pace won in 1:53.2 and on Saturday, Feb. 3, the features were a $7,200 open pace for fillies and mares and the $7,000 Doc Walker prep pace for three year-old fillies.

Like many tracks, Hawthorne has to worry about horse shortages, especially in the winter, but so far, it is stemming the tide.  The Monday, Feb. 5 card had 82 horses entered over its 10-race card.

If you like harness racing on a one-mile track, Hawthorne Race Course is worth checking out.  The track, for the most part, races on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday with a unique 7:08 PM Central time first race post.

John Furgele
As a kid growing up in the Buffalo suburbs in the 1970s and 80s, the radio was one of John Furgele’s best friends. In the evenings, he used to listen to a show on WBEN radio called “Free Form Sports,” hosted by Buffalo broadcast legend Stan Barron. The show ran weeknights from 6 to 11 pm and featured every kind of sport you could imagine. One minute, Mr. Barron was interviewing a Buffalo Sabres player; the next, he was giving high school field hockey scores.

But there was always one thing that caught John’s ear. During those five hours, Barron would give the results from Western New York’s two harness racing tracks — Buffalo Raceway and Batavia Downs. This is where John learned what exactas, quinellas, trifectas and daily doubles were all about. From then on, he always paid attention to harness racing, and when Niatross (a legendary Western New York horse) hit the scene in 1979, his interest began to blossom.

John believes harness racing is a sport that has the potential to grow and he will explore ways to get that done via marketing, promotion and, above all, the races themselves.

When he’s not watching races, John is busy with his family and his job in sales. Like the pacers and trotters, he does a little running himself and you’ll occasionally find him “going to post” in a local 5K race.

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