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Breeders Cup 2015
Kentucky Derby 2017

Chicago Dark Horse: Behind the Scenes at Hawthorne

Yesterday was a great adventure as I went behind the scenes at Hawthorne Race Course to see how the magic happens.  The first part consisted of visiting the backstretch during the early morning hours while the second part was taking a close look at how a racing card is put together.  I had never been to the back side of Hawthorne, nor have I ever visited a racing office.  I’m happy to share with you my adventures from today (and man am I tired!)  

The day started very early.  I was the only one awake in my house and in order to meet Jim Miller at Alexander’s for breakfast by 6:00 I had to leave my place by 4:30.  That is not a misprint and it is correct; 4:30 in the morning.  OK, so Hawthorne isn’t close to my house and I’m sure Brian Zipse admires my dedication.  Anyway, breakfast was great (breakfast sandwich and coffee) and I followed Jim to Hawthorne.  

Upon arrival we parked in the underground garage and chatted briefly with racing Secretary Gary Duch (more with him later).  Jim and I then worked through the underground maze of Hawthorne visiting some key areas including the jockey room, silks room, Jim’s office (more on that later too), etc.  Without a guide I would have been lost!  We walked through the paddock and around the clubhouse turn to the backstretch.  

We arrived at the 6 ½ furlong start where the starting gate was there idly waiting for the day to begin.  
(Photos by...um... me!)
I have never been that close to a real starting gate before to I decided to check it out.  I tell ya, there isn’t much room for much more than a horse and its rider.  It just made me appreciate a little more the hard work that the assistant starters in the gate must have to do in order to get each and every race off just perfect.  
(more photos by yours truly - gate schooling) 

We snuck through the secret fence and visited the track maintenance office.  There, Greg Cardenas was keeping warm in the brisk Chicago morning.  Jim and Greg spoke briefly about the track conditions, status of the equipment, and new workout schedule starting next week.  Mr. Cardenas must do a great job as when I got to walk on the track it seemed to be in perfect condition.  (Later Inez Karlsson said it was a bit hard, but what do I know?  I thought it was great!)  Apparently the track gets a little better during break time from workouts.  
(photos by me again) 

Then the trip turned a few feet east to the barns.  Jim and I went in one barn and out.  Into another barn and out.  The amazing thing though is the great people that work so hard to make our industry what it is.  Now I’ll run down the list of people I had the privilege to chat with during the tour of the backstretch this fine morning!

• Mickey Goldfine; long time trainer in Chicago and a VERY nice guy
• Phil Kasperski; the silks guru among other of his many duties at Hawthorne
Roger Brueggemann and Doug Bredar; trainer and jockey agent talking shop while watching morning works
Terrell Gore; trainer
Dee Poulos; Jim and I had about a 20 minute conversation in her office just talking about the ins and outs of Chicago racing - I really enjoyed this part
Tammy Domenosky; local Chicago-based trainer
Inez Karlsson; chatted with her very briefly as she was about to take the mount for one of many morning workouts
Frank Kirby; long time Chicago-based trainer
• And finally Blue Knott; the starter for both Hawthorne and Arlington (and a very funny guy)

So after some time visiting the stables, horses, trainers, and staff, we walked back around the clubhouse turn and made our way to the racing office.  This was my first ever visit to a racing office and I was very curious to know how racing cards are put together.  Jim introduced me to Gary Duch who is the racing secretary for Hawthorne and has been for over 16 years.  Gary has the unique role of balancing what the trainers want and what the fans want in terms of racing.  See, trainers don’t mind short fields as the purses don’t change and the competition is easier whereas the fans like fuller fields as they present better wagering opportunities.  Anyway, I don’t question how difficult this job must be.  

Gary was gracious enough to spend a lot of time with me explaining the inner workings of the racing office.  Right on schedule at 9:30 the clerk of scales came in and gave us the scratches for the day.  Whoa, I was the first person to get that information!  The racing office does take a lot of planning and coordination though.  Gary had huge and gigantic sheets of graph paper with the whole spring meet laid out with the dates across the top and the conditions on the right.  
(drawing by Marcy Leonard!) 

The entire process reminded me of a trading pit in the stock market.  The group was working feverishly to get the right horses in the right races.  Sure, they had enough horses, but they needed to find the right ones with the right conditions.  Gary and his staff were constantly on the phone or speaking with jockey agents trying to find the right mix.  

At this point I proceeded to ask Gary some typical Chicago Dark Horse questions.  The funniest conditions he has ever written were a race for all gray horses (on Halloween) and he said he also likes writing races for the more non-common distances such as 2 miles and 70 yards and also 1 mile and 15/16 furlongs!  He’s right; we certainly don’t see these often.  

The racing office wasn’t quite ready to draw yet, so I headed back down to Jim’s office for his interview with TVG (and even spoke with track announcer Peter Galassi for a few minutes on the way).  I recorded Jim while he was doing the morning interview with Christina Olivares and Matt Carothers.  It was a bit strange as I only got one side of the interview, but there I was right next to TVG’s stationary camera in Jim’s office.  Cool!
To see my video:  CLICK HERE 

It was time for the draw so back to the racing office I went…and I’ve heard things that I’ve never heard before.

“Fourth as the ninth with ten”
“Extra seven as the eighth also with ten”

“Can I get shorty for Eastern Precipice?”

“Kid took another one”

Like a well oiled machine, the team of racing officials had the entire card put together in about ten minutes.  With all of the jock agents anxiously waiting on the other side of the counter, the racing officials took a stack of papers one at a time (the entered horses I assume) and another official put the appropriate amount of “pills” or small numbered balls into a small brown jug with a small opening at the top and called out one number at a time assigning post positions to all of the horses entered in the race.  The “pills” are placed back onto a wooden board one by one as the numbers are called.  
(more photos by me)

Again, within a few minutes the whole card was put together.  The Wednesday card at Hawthorne is now ready for Jim Miller to get the morning lines complete and for the fans to start handicapping the races.

It’s easy for us to just go to the track and put a couple bucks down on some horses, but there are so many people in the background making this happen for all of us that it truly amazes me.  I’m glad I had the opportunity to not only visit the back stretch but to also see how a day in the life of the racing office goes.  

Leave a comment below!!


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Older Comments about Chicago Dark Horse: Behind the Scenes at Hawthorne...

Very cool post Chris, I've always wanted to something like that at a track! Someday...someday I will!
Chris, this is a really neat behind the scenes article. I checked that video out earlier today & its really cool too.
fantastic, thanks for telling us fans what goes on in there !!
It was a great day! I really had a lot of fun on the backstretch. Now Gabriel wants to hang out back there too!
Very interesting account, Chris!
Thanks so much Anna! Hawthorne has a rich history in Chicago, over 100 years!
(curses) ...racetracks remind me of old theatres, all elegant in their way, lots of history, would make a great trip to tour the racetracks.
Love to see these behind the scenes, Racetracks make me think bait of old theatres, every city has them, so interesting,
This is great.. always nice to get a close up on the complexities of horse racing.. you do wonderful work!
Yeah I had so much fun this day!
Sounds like an awesome day! There are so many people that make racing possible and work behind the scenes. Thanks for giving them their due!
Woo whee! What a day! Great piece, Chris.
Excellent job little grasshopper.
Your dedication is almost as awesome as this piece ... loved it, Dark Horse!

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