words & photos by NICOLLE NEULIST
After two months of quiet afternoons, racing resumed last week at Hawthorne Race Course.
For so many of the reasons that mattered, Hawthorne was the same home track I remembered. Flipping through the past performances revealed familiar names—horses whose careers I have been following for years. I knew their blazes, their stars, their socks. I relished the sound of their hooves carrying them across the dirt. I couldn’t walk a few yards without seeing a friendly face or striking up a chat with an interesting stranger.
However, a few things did change. A section of chairs and carrels in the grandstand had been replaced by an inviting lounge with bright equine art adorning the walls by the betting machines and mutuel windows (see photo above).
First post, previously earlier in the afternoon, became 4:10 p.m. CT for this March-April meet. For simulcast players, that means tuning into Hawthorne once the East Coast tracks are winding down. For locals? It ensures every race day will span sunset. For a short while every evening, Cicero becomes scenic. The sky over the clubhouse turn fills with bands of deep blue, purple, orange, red, before night finally falls.
On the racetrack, both Friday and Saturday abounded with surprises. In eighteen races, just four favorites won. No one hit the Pick 5 on either day, creating a two-day carryover of $32,621 into Friday, March 10.
The biggest surprise of the weekend came in the third race on opening day. Eleven lightly raced horses went five furlongs on the dirt in an Illinois-bred maiden special weight. Most of the attention focused on three horses: class-dropper Scarlet City, and debut runners Ahoymycaptain and Richie Rocks.
Though a photo decided the race, none of those heralded contenders got their noses in it. Despite bounding awkwardly down the backside and riding a dead rail, 51/1 shot Unbridled Ruler almost got home first. He fell just a neck short behind a foe rallying outside. Cat’s Runaway, who had exuded so much confidence in the post parade, hit the wire just in time at slightly chalkier odds: 40/1.
In the saddle, Victor Santiago emerged as the star of the weekend. The opening day card comprised nine races; Santiago smiled for the camera after five of them. Early he guided home two Remington shippers, Keg and Affirmatif Song, for trainer Mike Durham. Later in the evening he prevailed twice for perennial leading trainer Scott Becker, with Bluegrass Sight and Queen of Wildwood.
However, Santiago saved his best for his final victory. In the eighth race he had the call on trainer Tom Dorris’s Even Fever, the fourth wagering choice in a six-horse N1X. Santiago sent him out of the gate, guided him wide, and let the others try to catch the speedy grey. Despite the ground loss, no one could. That smart, audacious ride on Even Fever brought Victor Santiago his fifth win on the day.
Shifting from the weekend’s racing action back to the place itself…Hawthorne’s paddock differs from so many paddocks at more temperate venues. It is inside, nestled below the grandstand. Though racing in Chicago pauses for January and February, the coldest months of Chicago’s year, frigid December and March days make the Hawthorne paddock a welcome respite from the howling wind.
Even on warmer days, the layout of its paddock makes Hawthorne special. It allows racegoers as close a view of the horses as any racetrack paddock anywhere. As horses walk around the paddock, only a rail stands between them and the general public. The physical handicapper can take in every dappled inch of a horse’s coat, every phase of their motion. The fan who enjoys nothing better than being close to horses can savor that proximity nine times a day.
At no point during opening weekend at Hawthorne did I feel more at home than I did in that paddock, before Saturday’s nightcap. As the field got saddled and ready to race, my eyes followed two in particular: the flashy chestnut Iker, and the more understated bay Dittman Thunder.
Both were Illinois-breds, born in 2011. Both ran in the maiden ranks during my early days at Hawthorne. As they were learning to become racehorses, I was learning the races.
Though both made their six-year-old debuts in Saturday’s finale, a conditioned $4,000 claimer, their careers had followed different trajectories. Iker has earned his stripes as a salty local mainstay. Entering Saturday’s finale, he had made 34 starts, almost all on the Chicago circuit. Dittman Thunder, on the other hand, had flashed and disappeared. He ran 11 times in 2014, with seven finishes in the money. Periodically, through 2015 and 2016, I would check to see if Dittman Thunder had moved to another circuit. He hadn’t raced anywhere. Saturday’s race was his first in over two years.
Both horses looked ready. Looks did not deceive. Iker, on a loose early lead, never relented. Dittman Thunder, midpack early, did not show the rust characteristic of such a long layoff. He tried all the way to the wire, and finished a clear third. Seeing them in the paddock took me back in time, but their performance on the track reminded me why both still race.
Hawthorne is Chicago’s hidden gem: a horseplayer’s track and a horse person’s track. If you like challenging handicapping, competitive racing, close proximity to horses, or a chat with an interesting railbird? Make plans to visit Hawthorne for an evening of racing. You’ll find something to love.
HAWTHORNE AT A GLANCE
|Avg. Winning Odds: 6.28 – 1|
|Favorite Win%: 22%, Favorite Itm%: 61%|
|Pick 6 Jackpot||719.70|
|Super High Five Jackpot||1,167.80|
|Who’s HOT, Who’s NOT|