Today, the Hawthorne fall meet came to a close. After a fall full of dry weather and fast tracks, morning showers that lasted into the afternoon were enough to make the track a sloppy mess today. The temperature was warm for an early January day, but the warmth has been par for the course. There was no chance of an early end to the day, as happened on the final weekend of last year’s Hawthorne meet. A day before the meet ended last fall, a warm day after sustained brutal cold had caused enough ice to melt that the track became treacherous.
This year? The final weekend featured good, old-fashioned slop.
The beginning of the Hawthorne card was less than auspicious at the windows. My strongest opinion in the first race was that Gold Legion would win, so I structured a ticket that singled him on top and then spread wider below. The one horse I was against specifically because of the track conditions was Wildwood Perfect, given that he had failed to hit the board in five attempts on slop. Gold Legion failed to fire. Wildwood Perfect, in the first of three wins on the day for new rider Vicente Gudiel, won by open lengths. My swing at superfecta glory was ticket confetti.
Still, despite the disappointment at the windows, the superfecta carryover was fun. It gave me a chance to try constructing a ticket for a wager that I almost never play. Even better was the sense of camaraderie and community that popped up around it. The novelty, not to mention the money up for grabs, got people who do not typically talk about Hawthorne to play it. People marvelled that such a thing could even happen, and people posted their thoughts and their tickets as post time neared. Hawthorne is not the most frequent topic of conversation outside a cluster of Chicago Twitter accounts. Win or lose, having an uptick of national attention on the home track felt good.
Handicapping-wise, I had hits and misses. Some of the horses on whom I was high faltered; others flew. There were long shots that panned out…like Junior Benny, the 32/1 shot in the third race who was cutting back to a sprint, and sired by respectable off-track sire Benny the Bull. He came up along the rail to threaten wire-to-wire winner Armando’s Star; though he fell a little short there, he kept his neck in front of closing odds-on favourite Bordini and held second. There were long shots who did not do as well as I had hoped…like 14/1 shot Super Twenty Three, who was interesting as the likely speed of the speed. Instead he threw a fit at the gate before the seventh race, did not have enough left to contend for the lead, and finished last.
If the racing at Hawthorne could be boiled down to one word, though, that word was mud. Hooves splashed, and horses sometimes palpably wondered whether whether or not it was a good idea to run over the surface. There were a few muddy days in October, but a shortage of wet weather on racing days since then. This was a day for the slop monsters to shine, one of precious few through the meet, and a day when the need for a post-race bath could not be more clear to the naked eye.
This was my third meet attending Hawthorne regularly. Though most of the days I have visited have had dry weather and fast dirt, it always warms a certain place in my heart to see wet weather there once in a while. My first trip out to Hawthorne was on a very soggy Hawthorne Derby day in 2013. It brings back memories of that curious, anonymous, and tentative trip to that unknown horse track at 35th and Cicero. My experience now is very different, and thoughts of “will people think I’m crazy for going here” are replaced by “this place feels like home”. Whether it is a crowded day like Illinois Derby day, or a sub-freezing day in February, there is nowhere I would rather be than Hawthorne on a race day.
In the final race, Grand Procession crossed the wire last, 23 lengths behind winner Wall Student. Once his nose crossed the wire, that was it. Horses will still gallop in the mornings, but the fans have six weeks to wait until live racing resumes. Come February, I will be right back…leaning against the fence at the wire, and waiting for the horses to run by.