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Thursday Thoughts: A Chat with Hawthorne's John Walsh

by Al Cimaglia

June 7, 2018

John Walsh, the Assistant General Manager at Hawthorne Race Course has worn a few hats during his 37 years in racing. John began his journey back in 1981 at Sportsman's Park and remained there until the track closed in 2003. John then moved next door to Hawthorne and with the help of his leadership, the track has experienced many positive changes.

Currently, Hawthorne is the only track in Illinois to have both harness and thoroughbred racing. Hawthorne's ownership has invested heavily in Illinois racing in recent years. The grandstand area has been updated and has the look of a polished sports bar with about 200 high definition televisions. John also has had a hand in the expansion of Hawthorne's off-track betting facilities to a total of ten, with the most recent addition being in downstate Peoria. To keep pace with the advent of online betting John implemented the introduction of the Club Hawthorne online and mobile wagering platform.

Recently John participated in a Q & A on a variety of racing topics. He is very optimistic Hawthorne will be in a position to grow racing in Illinois and to benefit from legalized sports betting as well.

Hawthorne runs meets for thoroughbreds and standardbreds. Besides the difference in popularity, what are specific challenges with both breeds a track operator faces?

The biggest challenge is field size and placement of races for both breeds. In Illinois, our purses are not subsidized so we have difficulty drawing a large amount of horses that we would like to have. Our neighboring states with racing also have gaming. Harness racing's challenge is getting more fans involved and we are attempting to do that on many fronts.

Politics being what they are, can you comment on when you think sports betting will happen in Illinois and if Hawthorne will be a host site?

We are hoping in the next 12 or 13 months sports betting will become a reality in Illinois and we think racetracks are quite a good fit for the sportsbook model. We have hundreds of state of the art viewing screens and facilities that are geared toward wagering on events.

How can harness racing in Illinois grow its fan base with the arrival of sports betting?

Much like our earlier post on Kentucky Derby Day the more you introduce people to the horses in standardbred racing the more fans and owners you will cultivate. The equine athletes really sell themselves once they are in front of the public.

If you could change one thing about harness racing which holds back the sport from becoming more popular what would it be?

I think the easiest thing to make it more popular is to get more people involved in owning horses in small portions (shares). Then they can follow their horses from yearlings to race horses like what Anthony MacDonald has done in Canada with thestable.ca.

Hawthorne had led the way in Illinois with trying to get more people involved in racing through ownership. What is the value to Hawthorne and harness racing in general by having a contest like the own a horse sweepstakes?

This year we gave away 10 percent of two horses to our fans and I will be so interested to see how many of them come out on June 17th to see their babies first race. The value to Hawthorne, in the long run, is to get people to invest a bit of their time and money into owning a horse that they can enjoy this summer along with their friends. Hopefully, their friends decide to do the same next year and invest in our sport.

Are you bullish on harness racing in Illinois and where do you think the program will be within the next three years?

Assuming we receive some legislative relief, I believe the sport in the next three years will grow tremendously adding more jobs and more fans who will definitely enjoy themselves, and maybe also make a little money. Hawthorne has great designs for all horse racing in the future.

Thanks John for sharing your thoughts on Illinois racing!

Check me out on Twitter, @AlCimaglia.