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Monday, January 6, 2014

They Race in Everything Don't They?

With this latest arctic blast, VFTRG Contributor Peter Lawrence remembers the good old days when racing in Chicago meant racing in any conditions, including minus zero weather.  Here is his story.

Minus 25 degrees, minus 75 with the wind-chill ...

America's middle section is in the deep-freeze tonight - Sunday night, as I write this - and by Monday night and Tuesday morning, it's supposed to be about the same here in New Jersey, too.

The coldest weather I've ever experienced, and the coldest weather I've ever actually seen harness racing conducted in, was in Chicago (surprise!), and I think it was in early January, 1982.

I just scrawled out a rough timeline of my life and (ahem) career, and it appears I was living and working in Chicago during the winter of '81-82. Also, I remember that David Letterman's NBC show debuted while I was there, and a quick scan of HIS career says that occurred in February, 1982.

I was a writer and editor at a magazine called *Illinois Standardbred* at the time, and I generally went to the races every Saturday, be they at Maywood in the fall, or Hawthorne during the cold winter months.

(Spring meant Maywood again, and summers were at Sportsman's Park in those days. I don't remember if Balmoral had harness dates at the time.)

Anyway, Hawthorne only had about a six-week meet, as I recall, more or less January and half of February. In order to squeeze in as many programs as possible -- I assume that was the reason; I never inquired -- Hawthorne raced double-headers THREE TIMES a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. As I recall, they also raced single cards on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Sundays, they rested. Whew!

So anyway, on this particular Saturday, I awoke to a clear, glorious day. The sky was a beautiful cloudless blue, but it was cold, really cold.

I called Hawthorne, to see if the afternoon card was still on. The track operator barked, "Yes, we're racing!" at me, in a tone which made me think she'd been answering that same question all morning.

So, I ate some breakfast, and was off to a long day of racing over the big Hawthorne mile oval.

I got there, parked my car, went inside, and made my way upstairs to the press box. I remember the official temperature for the first race, as recorded by a program or publicity guy, whose name I think was George Rowe, was right around minus six degrees, actual air temperature, without wind figured in. That might have been the day's high reading.

Can't say as I remember much about the horses or drivers, though I'm sure it was the Chi-town regulars: Paisley, Busse, Hostetler, Hiteman, Magee, Hamilton, Banks, et al. I do remember that there were no post parades, that the horses went straight from the paddock to the gate, and that there were a few scratches, as one might expect.

The drivers almost all wore scarves, or masks that only left their eyes showing, and the judges magnanimously allowed the use of foam rubber horse masks that covered the horses' nostrils. That was considered controversial, which never made sense to me. If a mask gave a horse an inch or so "advantage" at the wire in a photo finish, didn't it also mean he or she started that very same inch or so behind any horse not wearing a mask? The tip of the mask had to go the same distance as a naked nose had to go.

The afternoon card went off without incident, then the sun went down, and it got REALLY cold.

I think the night's official first race temperature reading was about 15 degrees below zero, and it was windy, too. There were more and more scratches announced, as the judges announced that withdrawing horses wouldn't adversely affect the horses' "preference dates" for entering again later.

I recall that, with all those scratches, there were several four-horse races, several three-horse races, and even a two-horse race, which, if memory serves me well, finished in a near dead-heat. It was surprisingly exciting.

Soon, it was time to navigate my way back to my car (something like a 1970 Pontiac, but that's not important) and to drive home to Hinsdale, a Chicago suburb where I lived.

Holy smokes, it was unbelievably cold out there in the parking lot. I'd been having problems under the hood of my old car, checked under the hood, and was shocked to discover that the fluids, like for the brakes and automatic transmission, were the consistency of marmalade, and when I drove off, I was afraid my tires would shatter.

The air temperature was minus 25 degrees, and with the wind-chill, it was minus 75 freaking degrees! If that wasn't a Chicago record, I don't know what was.

It now looks as though the current Chicago harness circuit of Maywood and Balmoral has no live dates this month, and that's probably for the best. I'd read about the possibility of little to no harness racing in Illinois this year at all, due to purse and regulatory issues, but an online calendar I just perused says Chicagoland racing will resume in February.

Bless the Prairie State standardbred horse community for putting on a show this winter, and every winter. And bless the folks in this area who raced at Meadowlands the past few nights. That 1:51 1/5 mile - on the TROT - was really something on Friday.

Hang on, grooms, trainers and drivers. Spring is coming. I promise you, it's coming.


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