UPDATED: Services Sunday for Hawthorne Race Course’s Tom Carey, who helped guide rebuild after 1978 fire, has died at 87

He also steered the Cicero horse track through other tough times, with declining revenues and competition from casinos and the state lottery.

SHARE UPDATED: Services Sunday for Hawthorne Race Course’s Tom Carey, who helped guide rebuild after 1978 fire, has died at 87
Tom Carey, the patriarch of Hawthorne Race Course.

Tom Carey, the patriarch of Hawthorne Race Course.

Provided photo

Tom Carey, a high school and college football standout who went on to lead Hawthorne Race Course for 30 years, died Tuesday at 87.

The fourth of five generations in the century-plus family business, he steered the Cicero horse track through declining revenues as lotteries and casinos expanded. And he helped to rebuild it after a disastrous fire in 1978 destroyed the grandstand.

He died at his home in Boca Raton, Florida, according to racetrack representatives. Mr. Carey, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, also lived in a Riverside house with giant bronze horse statues on the lawn.

Even when survival mode kicked in during the fire, he tried to keep an eye toward the future, he said in a 2003 Sun-Times interview. The track reopened after two years.

“Fire commissioner [Robert] Quinn was on site almost immediately and wanted to know what I wanted saved,” Mr. Carey said. “I said, ‘Foal certificates for the horsemen.’ They needed them as proof that the foals came from their horses.

“The certificates were in the vault with the money. So Quinn decked me up with a fireman’s hat, heavy coat, trousers and boots, and we crawled into the steel room, hooked a cable around the vault and had an engine pull it through a hole in the wall. We just made it out.”

Mr. Carey also helped Arlington International Racecourse rebuild after a 1985 fire at the northwest suburban track. He offered to let Arlington run races at Hawthorne, which it did.

Without that, “You would have had a pause in racing in Illinois, and the horses may not have come back,” according to Jim Miller, director of media relations for Hawthorne.

“Smoke was still coming out” when Mr. Carey arrived to lend a hand, said Dick Duchossois, chairman emeritus of Arlington. “He was the first one sitting on our doorstep to say ‘You can run the rest of your meet at Hawthorne.’ ”

“We went over there with all of our troops” to finish the season and many racing jobs were saved as a result, Duchossois said.

Mr. Carey was a hands-on, highly visible figure at Hawthorne, which is now operated by his nephew Tim Carey.

“On racing day, he would be there in the winner’s circle,” Miller said. “He would be in the paddock as the horses were being saddled. He would eat in the food court with the patrons.”

During his era, top thoroughbreds that ran at the track included Cryptoclearance, Awesome Again and Black Tie Affair.

The family business was founded by his great-grandfather Thomas Carey, a Chicago alderman who owned a brick company.

Young Tom led the 1950 football team at Mount Carmel High School to an 11-0 record before joining the football team at the University of Notre Dame, where he played for coaches Frank Leahy and Terry Brennan.

In the Sun-Times interview, he reminisced about a landmark, foggy game of his youth — a 45-20 victory:

“We beat Lane Tech in the 1950 Prep Bowl. It was so foggy in Soldier Field we couldn’t see their guys, but we obviously saw their goal line. I threw a long pass to Paul Leoni that just disappeared. I didn’t know what happened until Paul showed up with the ball. I still don’t know how he saw it.”

Hawthorne Race Course president Tom Carey in October 1997.

Hawthorne Race Course president Tom Carey in October 1997.

Richard A. Chapman / Sun-Times

He spoke of his scrappy upbringing.

“Our neighborhood on the Southeast Side went from 67th and Stony Island to the steel mills,” he said. “The guys didn’t take anything from anyone. The upperclassmen tried to fight us, but we took care of it.”

He called Notre Dame’s Johnny Lattner, who won the Heisman Trophy and then played for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the “best athlete I ever saw. I met him when he came back from Notre Dame to watch Fenwick play us in a big Catholic League game. Guess who was first to greet me the next year when I showed up at Notre Dame? Johnny Lattner. Here’s an All-American junior remembering a grubby freshman’s first name.”

He got a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Notre Dame in 1955 and then went on to get his law degree from Northwestern University in 1958.

And, from 1956 to 1960, “Tom coached the Mount Carmel football team to four sectional titles,” Miller said, “as well as one city championship and one co-championship.”

He is survived by his wife Susan, six children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Miller said.

Visitation will be from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday at Colonial-Wojciechowski Funeral Home, 8025 W. Golf Rd., Niles, with a memorial mass to begin at 5:30 p.m. at St. Isaac Jogues Church, 8149 W. Golf Rd., Niles.

The Nov. 20, 1978, Sun-Times report on the devastating fire at Hawthorne Race Course.

The Nov. 20, 1978, Sun-Times report on the devastating fire at Hawthorne Race Course.

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