Post time at two tracks? Hawthorne, Fairmount champing at the bit to resume horse racing

While Pritzker’s office said it would make an announcement soon about reopening the tracks, the Democratic governor reined in optimism during an East St. Louis news conference earlier in the day.

SHARE Post time at two tracks? Hawthorne, Fairmount champing at the bit to resume horse racing
Harness driver Ron Marsh joins in a qualifying race at Hawthorne Race Course in 2003.

Harness driver Ron Marsh joins in a qualifying race at Hawthorne Race Course in 2003.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

Illinois’ struggling horse racing industry could be back off to the races as soon as next week without any spectators in attendance, but Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he’s not quite ready to pick up the starting bugle just yet.

The governor’s office said Wednesday evening it was in the home stretch of implementing a plan to resume fan-free operations at the state’s three racetracks, with health protections in place for workers.

Hawthorne Race Course had already bolted from the starting gate, though, with the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association announcing the track in west suburban Stickney will reopen June 6 for drivers and trainers, but not railbirds.

They could be off and running even sooner at Fairmount Park in downstate Collinsville, where the Illinois Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association says they’ve gotten clearance for thoroughbred racing to “resume as early as June 1.”

But there’s no plan yet for the action to resume at Arlington International Racecourse, which remains at loggerheads with the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s on a contract for the season.

“We are thrilled to be racing again,” Harness Horsemen’s Association board president Clark Fairley said in a statement. “We’ve all been working without paychecks for the last few months. If we don’t race, we don’t get paid but we still have to work. Horses can’t take care of themselves.”

While Pritzker’s office said it would make an announcement soon about reopening the tracks, the Democratic governor reined in optimism during an East St. Louis news conference earlier in the day.

“I don’t think it’ll restart on June 1. I think live horse racing will restart. I can’t tell you what date, but again, it will be like other spectator sports where it would have to run without spectators, at least to begin with,” Pritzker said.

A horse player studies the program at Hawthorne Race Course in 1996.

A horse player studies the program at Hawthorne Race Course in 1996.

Chicago Sun Times files

“At least in the horse racing industry, that can be done. Most of the betting gets done not at the location of the horse race. Much of the handle, the dollars bet, are bet all over the world on races that occur in Illinois.”

And the industry is counting on horse players to do just that online. Industry leaders spent weeks hammering out safety precautions with the state departments of Agriculture and Public Health to get the tracks up and running.

Besides barring fans from the grandstand, Hawthorne plans to limit entrants to licensed racing personnel, who are all required to wear face masks and gloves, and are subject to temperature checks.

Barns that usually hold up to 100 horses will be limited to 30, with at least one stall separating each. Paddocks and barns will be sprayed and disinfected nightly. And at the conclusion of each race, the winner’s circle will be limited to the horse, driver and either the trainer or groom.

“There isn’t much person-to-person contact in the backstretch to begin with and there is plenty of space to socially distance,” Fairley said. “We can’t afford to lose any more live racing so everyone must be vigilant.”

Harness racing at Hawthorne Race Course in 1996.

Harness racing at Hawthorne Race Course in 1996.

Chicago Sun Times file.

After racing June 6-7, they say they’ll resume three nights per week at Hawthorne into September, with race winnings reduced 15%.

“This will be a very hard year for horsemen,” Fairley said. “But we hope that we have turned a corner. For now, we’re happy to be racing into the future.”

When it returns, horse racing will be the only game in town, as the state’s 10 casinos and 36,000-plus video gaming terminals remain shut down indefinitely by the Illinois Gaming Board.

Arlington remains shuttered, too. The track announced Wednesday it suspended its opening races of the season “in support of, and with respect to” Pritzker’s phased reopening plan.

The Pizza Man, ridden by jockey Florent Geeroux, wins the Arlington Million in 2015.

The Pizza Man, ridden by jockey Florent Geeroux, wins the Arlington Million in 2015.

Provided by Arlington International Racecourse.

That drew the ire of thoroughbred trainers, who said Arlington’s “contempt for Illinois workers and the best interests of taxpayers knows no bounds.”

“Rather than race without spectators, and miss out on the prospect of selling cocktails at a steep markup to crowds at Arlington Million Day, Arlington instead is poised to forgo racing altogether,” the trainers’ group said in a statement.

Arlington president Tony Petrillo told the Illinois Racing Board last week they haven’t considered pulling the plug on the entire racing season, but that running without spectators “was not possible” without the off-track betting network up and fully operational.

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