Hawthorne Race Course near Chicago, IL. opened its 2012 live race meet with optimism in the air. Horsemen this season will be competing for higher purses, which is largely the result of an “impact fee” being paid out by the state’s two riverboat casinos. The additional prize money has led to a dramatic increase in the number of horses on the grounds and that figures to lead to bigger fields and better wagering opportunities. According to track officials, daily purses will average around $180,000 a day for the 2012 spring meet, which opened Feb. 17 and runs through April 19. Additionally, Hawthorne’s signature race-the Grade 2, Illinois Derby-had its purse restored to $500,000 after being run for $300,000 in 2011. The 2012 Illinois Derby is scheduled for April 7, one month prior to the Kentucky Derby. In addition to the Illinois Derby, Hawthorne also hosts two of Illinois’ most historic races-the Grade 2 Hawthorne Gold Cup, first run in 1928; and the Sixty Sails Handicap for fillies and mares. Track officials say the horse inventory is up 25 percent from last year’s meet and its showing in the entry box. Through the first three days of the 2012 Hawthorne meet field size has averaged more than 10 starters per race. “We have really teed ourselves up for a great meet,” said Hawthorne Assistant General Manager Jim Miller, who added Chicago’s mild winter has also played a role in his optimism. “Our horsemen have responded with more horses…and our increased purses and incentives for larger fields has been very well received.” Hawthorne will conduct live racing on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Feb. 29. After that Wednesday’s will be added to make a four-day race week. Horse racing has a rich and colorful history in the Chicago area. Up until the first half of the last decade, three separate racetracks served the city-Sportsman’s Park, Arlington Park, and Hawthorne Race Course. However, Sportsman’s Park-which at one time was a favorite hangout of gangster Al Capone-was closed after an ill-fated attempt to turn the facility into a combination horse racing and auto-racing facility. Hawthorne Race Course opened for business in 1891, making it the oldest racetrack in the state of Illinois. One of the more interesting facts of Hawthorne Race Course is it has been owned by the same family since 1909 when it was purchased by Thomas Carey. That makes Hawthorne the oldest continually family owned and operated racetrack in North America. Hawthorne Race Course is currently considered to be one of the top racetracks in the country by the Horseplayers Association of North America. A major reason for that is Hawthorne’s reasonable takeout rates. Bets with the potential for the highest payouts, which include the Pick Six, Pick Nine and High Five, had their takeout rates dropped from 25 percent to 20 percent. That’s among the lowest in the country. Additionally, Hawthorne’s Pick Five has a takeout rate of just 14 percent, which makes it an extremely popular bet.