On a recent visit to Chicago with my nephew, I took the opportunity to visit Hawthorne for the first time. Tentative plans to visit Chicago with him, and lovely Arlington, did not pan out so if we wanted to visit a racecourse in that area, Hawthorne it was.
While it would never be considered on a par with Arlington’s charm (a track I only visited once, but that was enough to make it one I both wanted to introduce other people to and one I will miss), the visit to Hawthorne was a nice lowkey end to a vacation that had been packed with activity each other day, and I still found a somewhat rustic charm to the track. While I liked the outdoor setup trackside, I didn’t enjoy the small overly crowded indoor area, and it was unusual that there didn’t seem to be public access to see the horses in the paddock. I did inquire about that and was told how to get there, but there was a sign posted where I had been told to go that said it was for horsemen only. I have read since my visit that construction on Hawthorne’s casino was halted months before October 2021, and is expected to resume at the end of this year. That may explain why public access to the paddock was off-limits, as well as why the grandstand which was behind the path to the paddock had no spectators in it. In addition, there was not an admission charge though I had read there would be one, and that too may have been because grandstand seating was not an option.
The day of our visit coincided with Belmont Stakes day. I had not thought of that when I planned the trip in March (it’s been a stressful year, and sometimes details like that get lost), but I had chosen that date because Hawthorne would hold the Work All Week Stakes that day. While it was not a graded race, it was a chance to see one of their bigger races.
I did enjoy the trackside atmosphere, as previously mentioned. While it was a lowkey setting, the picnic tables and benches seemed to intimate a family day out, which is what this was for my nephew and myself and I enjoyed having a table to spread out on. There was also a tent nearby with TVs inside, with several set to Belmont Park’s simulcast signal. I was glad to have a place to watch the Belmont Stakes when the time came outside of the crowded indoor area and also have more tables and chairs. It was never too crowded outdoors to have access to a table to ourselves, either in the tent or alongside the track rail.
My nephew picked a winner early on, who later had an article written about him since he was his sire’s first winner. While we didn’t actually bet, my nephew was quite happy to pick a winner. For myself, I enjoyed a chance to be back at the races for the first time since Keeneland concluded its spring meet, particularly as I was having some issues that made it difficult to attend as much as I would have liked, but since that was not an option I could accept it and was just glad to watch the live feed of the races from home. Speaking of Keeneland, during the few times I do attend a track without a video screen like that central Kentucky plant has, it does first seem unusual, outside of the norm. And without paddock access, that may have been beneficial, but after a little while I realized what I did enjoy about Hawthorne was it seemed to let one more purely take in the horses and the experience, without analysts interjecting their commentary into the day. And I do love to connect with the horses more, through observation, if not actual contact.
After watching the Belmont where Rich Strike didn’t manage an effort on par with his Derby win (although according to trainer Eric Reed, he apparently did attempt a similar run by trying to get to the rail – where of course he launched his Derby winning bid from – more than he tried to run down actual rivals) and Mo Donegal won, we watched a few more races at Hawthorne and then called it a day.
While Rich Strike likely proved his Derby win was a stroke of luck, it is still inspiring that he won for a small stable, and that the racing world was introduced to the close, touching bond between him and his groom Jerry Dixon Jr.
While Hawthorne is not a track of the caliber of Keeneland or Arlington, I still enjoyed my day there. It’s not a track I would feel drawn to again and again like those named above, but it is one I am glad I saw once to form my own impressions of it. One other aspect that stood out to me, as a racing history enthusiast, were several photos from the 1940s and 1950s mounted on a wall. One showed a race winner receiving a tall trophy filled with carrots, dipping his nose in enthusiastically, and several people in the winner’s circle with him munching on a few of the carrots with large smiles on their faces. It was a contrast to typical winner’s circle photos, standing out for the levity and the immediate reward to the winning horse.