Illinois harness leaders push to begin horse racing again amid COVID-19 pandemic

The horses are at the starting gate and ready to run, as soon as they get the green light from Illinois Governor JB Pritzker.

Leaders in the state’s harness industry are hoping to begin racing “without any fans in the stands” perhaps by the end of the month.

The horses continue to run at Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero, but it's all practice in front of empty seats.

Hawthorne closed in the middle of its racing season two months ago because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but is now seeking permission to re-open with empty stands.

"We want to be part of the solution to reopen the economy and we think we can do it safely,” said Tony Somone of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association.

Somone says Hawthorne is hoping to start racing again when the Chicago region moves into Phase 3 of the governor's reopening plan, which is tentatively set for May 29.

Illinois' horse industry is struggling for survival and even without bettors in the stands, Hawthorne believes OTB and online gambling could make a difference.

They say with horses in three separate barns, there is plenty of room for social distancing.

"We would never have more than 10 people in one area, which meets the criteria for Governor Pritzker's Phase 3 plan,” Somone said.

"We are definitely having conversations. The racing board, our office as well as the leaders in the racing industry as well as harness racing,” Pritzker said.

As for thoroughbred racing at Arlington Park, which was to have started earlier this month, a spokesman says it's a much more involved and complicated process and at this point they have no idea of when they may be able to reopen.