Baseball has spring training, auto racing has the Daytona 500, and golf has the Masters.
For Illinois thoroughbred racing fans, however, the first real sign of spring is opening day at Hawthorne Race Course.
And today's that day as the venerable Cicero track begins its 38-day spring meet (1:35 p.m. first post) with a nine-race card featuring 94 horses scheduled to go to postward, a full 20 more than a year ago.
"I'm ecstatic," said Hawthorne racing secretary Gary Duch. "It usually isn't hard to wrangle up a few horses for the opener, but the quantity might have exceeded my own high expectations."
Starting the meet a few weeks later than usual figures to be an advantage for the folks at Hawthorne, who add that they expect a large influx of horses heading north after New Orleans' Fair Grounds winter meet concludes March 23.
"Now we only have to bridge the gap for two weeks from the start of our meet to the end of the Fair Grounds meet," said Hawthorne general manager Jim Miller. "That means we'll have more horses coming up who are fit and ready to run."
They'll be joining the 1,000 or so horses who trained at Hawthorne through the six-week winter break.
"I expect us to have a very good meet this spring," said Hawthorne president Tim Carey. "Our horse population is up, the track has been in tremendous shape, and we have more horses ready to run then ever."
And to the delight of TVG subscribers, it appears Hawthorne and the horse racing network are on the verge of reaching an agreement to show Hawthorne races.
The biggest race of the meet will be the Grade II, $500,000 Hawthorne Derby on April 5, which in recent years has turned into an important prep race for the Kentucky Derby.
On April 19, the inaugural Grade III, $200,000 Bill Hartack Memorial Handicap will be the new name of the race formerly known as the National Jockey Club Handicap. The race is in memory of Hartack, the five-time Kentucky Derby winner who passed away last month. The race is for colts and geldings 3 years old and up.
Hawthorne's spring meet continues through April 28. Live racing is Thursday through Monday.