Day At The Track

Coronavirus threatens Illinois’ equine industry

06:00 AM 30 Mar 2020 NZDT
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Frizell Thomas
Frizell Thomas bathes Fox Valley Jason after a training session on the track at Hawthorn Race Course on Thursday in Cicero
Stacey Wescott Photo

CHICAGO — The daily schedule of harness racing trainer Hosea Williams hasn’t changed much since COVID-19 started to batter Illinois’ economy. He still rises at 4 a.m. each day and heads for the stables of Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero where his six Standardbreds await their daily exercise.

There is one difference, though. Once the weekend comes, there will be no racing — and thus, even as his expenses mount, no income.

“I’ve got a payroll — not a huge one, but I pay three people every week,” Williams said. “I will be OK. But you’ve got people there who are not OK.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order issued to combat the coronavirus outbreak has hammered many trades, but none more than the equine industry. From racetracks to trail rides, many who make a living through horses have seen their incomes dry up almost entirely.

But unlike other businesses, horse owners say, they can’t merely hunker down and wait for things to get better.

Frizell Thomas, left, is shown at Hawthorn Race Course on Thursday. The Pandemic is expected to have a devastating impact on the Industry

“If you’ve got a movie theater, you shut it down and put a closed sign in the window,” said Gerald Hansen, a Monee-based owner and trainer of harness horses. “With horses, they’ve got to eat every day. They’ve got to be worked every day. If this thing goes more than a month, we’re in deep trouble.”

Hawthorne began its season the second week of February but got in only five weekends of harness racing before it had to close. No racing means no betting, no purses and no way to offset the roughly $1,500 in monthly expenses each horse racks up.

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Hosea Williams with his horse, Rollin Coal, at Hawthorn Race Course on Thursday in Cicero.

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