McChump's "Podunk Track of the Week" Tour - Week 6

The scene: McChump HQ, Midwest, Thursday night, 11/13, a little after 10pm.

Me and the Chumpmobile, relaxing on the ChumpCouch(tm), enjoying a tasty Rice-A-Roni dinner fit for a king, washed down with PBR (can). The local Channel 5 weather chump, Andy Avalos, waving his arm over a big nasty winter storm heading our way, and projected to cover the entire upper Midwest by the weekend.

McChump: Man. That looks ugly. Sure going to make driving an adventure this weekend.

Chumpmobile: Walking, you mean.

McChump: What you mean, walking, chump?

Chumpmobile: Meaning you're walking if you think you're going anywhere out-of-state this weekend. I ain't gonna try to plow through 8 feet of lake effect snow down in Gary or Hammond.

McChump: But chump, we HAVE to go somewhere, so we can have a podunk track to write about next week!!!

Chumpmobile: So get walking. I'm staying right here on this couch and watching football.

Eventually a compromise was reached, and it was decided we could venture out on Sunday after the big nasty winter storm passed through on Saturday, to visit one of the Chicago area tracks we'd never been to, namely Balmoral. Which runs harness horses at night.

First the Chumpmobile wanted to stop down to Hawthorne and visit the horses in the morning, and kill off the afternoon at Hawthorne, before heading south to Crete for the night card at Balmoral. But when the end of the card came around at HAW, and it was nasty and cold, and dark to boot, the chump chumped out on me, and refused to go any further south! So all I got to write about this week is Hawthorne, which is okay I guess, since it's never got an official "treatment" anyhow.

--- Hawthorne Racecourse, Stickney, IL, November 16 ---

Getting down to Hawthorne on a weekend morning is actually a breeze, compared to weekdays, as long as there isn't a Bears game to clog up Lakeshore Drive, and those losers were out-of-town this particular weekend, so we managed the trip down from the North Shore in about 45 minutes.

Parking: free.

After visiting the horses and taking in the mandatory tasty yet inexpensive breakfast at the Sportsman's Cafe (open to the public), it was time to hit the track and start chasing some of that EAAAAASY MONEY, chump!

Admission: I don't know. I thinks it's maybe $1. Track program: $1.75. Clubhouse upgrade: I don't know. Maybe like $2.75 or $3.75. (Update: It's $2.25). The handy dandy Illinois owner's card spares me from these details.

Hawthorne is your quintessential inner city industrial neighborhood track, with smokestacks and factories creating an eye-pleasing backdrop, and the clientele, particularly on the lower grandstand side, fitting neatly into every racetrack crowd stereotype you've ever read about. Old coots, cursers, jockey harrassers, fix and stiff advocates, program pop-n-slappers, backside workers and their families, ticket tearers and tossers - the whole nine yards. Way different from the genteel north suburban crowd heavy on females that frequents (frequented) Arlington. But it's really pretty cool. It feels like "home". And of course all these characters provide an endless source of amusement for a chump with a warped sense of humor.

The HAW grandstand structure dates from 1981, I think, but seems older than just 16 years. There's plenty of space to roam around in, and ride up and down the escalators to the different floors, where the crowd differs on each level, the 2nd in particular with the TV boxes and the nice restaurant being a pleasant place to hang, if you're into watching races through big glass windows, and the 3rd floor grandstand side (unenclosed) has one of the best views of racing in all of Chicago, just so long as you're willing to do a little searching to find a seat that hasn't seen too much pigeon activity. But it was way too cold on this particular day to be sitting outside, so I chose to spend most of my time on the clubhouse side floor, where I could make make quick forays out onto the asphalt apron to watch the post parade or the races, and then scurry back indoors to the ample free seats to handicap the next race.

The infield at Hawthorne was mostly invisible this particular day, being covered with a bright coat of snow, but I can semi-reliably report from memory that it's a pretty nice one, with a big pond, and an area down to the right of the toteboard where Hawthorne sets up seasonal displays, such as a big pile of pumpkins in honor of the Halloween season, and on this particular day, it was sort of a Fall motif thing with lots of corn stalks, and a very chilly looking farmer dummy sitting on (something. A small tractor? A bale of hay?). I felt sorry for that poor dummy. He looked really cold. But when you're a dummy, I guess you have to take pretty much whatever work comes your way.

Food I can't really report on at HAW, as I always stop at the track cafe beforehand and never eat anything at HAW, but they seem to have all the usual fare, plus they do have an outstanding buffet at a reasonable price in the 2nd floor dining area. Big giant beers are $2.75, which is a bargain in today's world, and not just Pud, either. Big kudos to HAW on the beer situation. OTOH, the HAW gift shop is just about the worst. They have some pretty neat hats, and I pick up my racing calendar there every year, but that is about it. Then again - the crowd isn't exactly a gift shop type of crowd.

The paddock at HAW is indoors, and downstairs, and I never ever go down there because it would require some effort, so all I have to say about it is that it's indoors and downstairs.

This was the first entire day I'd spent betting HAW, what with all the traipsing around the Midwest in search of podunk tracks I've been doing, and my general disgust with the Illinois purses being offered to my horses, and I was very pleasantly surprised at the nice wagering opportunities offered on the day's card. Nine races starting with a $21k 7 horse allowance that ended up paying a $70 exacta, followed by a MdSpWt race with 12 participants and a $45 exacta, a couple of chalky claimers with 9 and 6 horse fields, a $12.5 claimer for a purse of $10.5k and 8 runners, that produced a $95 exacta, a cheap claimer with 11 horses that produced a mere $36 exacta, a 7 horse allowance that paid a cool $190 exacta, and then two $6250 claimers with 11 horses each, one of which delivered an $82 exacta. And you know what? I was actually hitting some of those big exactas, to the point where I walked out with a very nice profit and brought the podunk losing streak to a quick end.

The racing isn't for those who want to crank out a bunch of numbers and then expect the horses to run according to those numbers, but for someone who wants to take a little effort to learn what happens with horses being trained by certain trainers in certain situations, and know the horses on the circuit and who beat whom, and what the classes at the track really mean, and how those allowance horses from FP are really going to fit into the claiming structure in Chicago, and how the local jockeys are likely to ride this horse and that, and how the local track is likely to influence the race when it's wet-fast, then this is definitely a place you can expect to get some nice prices on good-sized fields and actually make some money. If you're into that sort of thing. ;-)

If I was being totally objective, I'd probably give Hawthorne a shrug of the shoulders rating, strictly because it's an inner city track that isn't all that attractive, but I can't because on this particular day I had a great time, the beer was cold, the characters entertaining, and the racing was good, so it gets a thumbs up.

With the new found wealth of our Hawthorne winnings burning a hole in our pocket, me and the chumpmobile made a special stop down to the Taqueria Las Americas on Belmont on the way home, where their motto is "Behave yourself and do not curse" (in English and Spanish), and scored up their fabulous burrito norteno. Mmmmmm!

Quite a satisfying McChump outing, and a lot less driving than usual.


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