a tangible reminder of tough times

News broke Wednesday that Hawthorne will probably cut stakes races from their spring schedule.

I have spent the last two days trying to find a way to talk about this.  I’m still not sure I have the right words, so much as I have sadness.  Frustration.  Anger.

I have a litany of feelings that I typically choose to keep out of Blinkers Off…but not this time.

From an operational perspective, it makes a lot of sense.  The spring meet this year will be a very short one: just twenty race days between March 11 and April 30.  There needs to be incentive to get enough horses on the grounds to contest that meet, to host competitive races that people will want to bet.  To the end of getting as many horses as possible to show up and race at the meet, putting the money into overnight purses instead of stakes races makes the most sense.

Still, it is a sad symbol.

It is hard to think that just two years ago, thanks to the presence of one Midnight Hawk, the apron was so crowded on Illinois Derby day that it was hard to get around.  This year, it looks like the race will not happen at all this spring.

Of course, I can’t kid myself.  It’s not like the apron was packed every single day as recently as two years ago.  The 2013 fall meet, the 2014 spring meet…I fell more in love with the racetrack with every visit through those first few meets I attended, but so many of those days were cold and quiet.

And, it’s not just the winter.  It’s all year long.  When mentioning horse racing in small talk with strangers, I so often get baffled reactions.  Just yesterday, when I mentioned in small talk that I wrote about horse racing, a person’s first word’s back to me were, “That’s weird!”  Many people have no idea there are two racetracks in public transit range of the city.  They have no idea that there is live horse racing in Chicago for the vast majority of the year.

And, I struggle over what I can do to help the sport I love viable in this place I love.

The one asset I have is enthusiasm.  I can — and will — keep talking and writing about Illinois thoroughbred racing.  I can handicap and bet Illinois racing, and do my best to convince others to do the same.  That is a core theme of so much of the writing, the tweeting, the talking that I do: Illinois racing is relevant, Illinois racing matters, and people should follow and engage with Illinois racing.

Beyond that?  I have a few thoughts, but I don’t know the answers.

Part of it is up to the state, but only part.  I support the slot machine bill, if only for its potential to provide another avenue for purse money.  After all, if the gaming cafes I pass on the South Cicero bus on the way to Hawthorne can have them, why can’t Hawthorne?  If suburban sports bars have a few slot machines in the back, why can’t Arlington?

However, my optimism for the gaming bill is guarded at best.  I don’t know how many people the slots will draw in…after all, there are already so many other places to play slots.  I don’t know if they’ll generate enough purse money to make purses competitive again.  I don’t know if it will be enough to give breeders, owners, and trainers the bullish confidence they need to give Illinois racing one more chance.

Another huge part lies with the tracks.  With or without a gaming bill, they need to do their best to get more money into the sport to pay for purses and facilities.  Of course, a gaming bill may help make this a bit easier task.  After all, it will probably provide at least some purse money, and both its letter and its hint of legislative support will give racing in Illinois a level of stability that it currently lacks.

But, it needs to happen even without a gaming bill, and there are things that can be done without one.  Our tracks need to attract existing bettors, both on track and off track, to play Chicago-area races.  There has been some work in that regard over the last few years, with some new bets tried, but experimentation and research into which bets appeal must continue in order to attract handle.

Racetracks must also get people in their doors — which starts with making sure people know that their doors exist.  The people I have met along the way have likely been a very small subset, but enough have not known that one or both tracks existed to make me think this is unique to the small group of people I have talked to.  There are so many reasons to enjoy horse racing: the animals, the athletic competition, the gambling, the enjoyment of a day outside.  Racing appeals to different people for different reasons, and these could all be hooks that the tracks here can use to make people know and care that they exist.  Just as with attracting existing bettors, it is not an easy task.  It will require market research as well as creativity.  But, racing needs people to know it exists here in Chicago, so they can give it a chance.

Tomorrow is another day.  I will wake up and head to Hawthorne for CANTER visits and morning works.  I will spend my afternoon watching racing at other tracks, and cheering on the Illinois-breds who run.

And, I’ll try for one more day to find something tangible I can do to help keep racing viable here.

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