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Homeracing

True Crime in Horse Racing: Hawthorne on Fire

Profile Picture: Jennifer Kelly

August 14th, 2022

In the last decades of the 19th century, Chicago was dotted with racetracks with features like the American and Chicago Derbies attracting many of the day’s best horses to venture west from New York and Maryland. At one time, the area had six racetracks operating, including Washington Park, the home of the American Derby; Arlington Park, where horses like Gallant Fox and John Henry won; and Hawthorne Race Course in Stickney, Illinois.

When a devastating fire hit Hawthorne in 1978, attention immediately turned to what – and who – could have caused the blaze and why.  

Historic Tracks, Unique Concerns

Hawthorne Race Course opened May 20, 1891, with a four-race card featuring the Chicago Derby. Edward Corrigan, owner and trainer of 1890 Kentucky Derby winner Riley, spearheaded the construction and operation of the track, seeing it through a fire that destroyed the grandstand in 1902 and then its closure in 1905, when the city banned horse racing.

Corrigan later sold the track to Thomas Carey in 1909, who attempted to reopen Hawthorne despite the city’s ban. Finally, in 1922, the track reopened and has been in operation ever since, with a member of the Carey family at the helm for much of the last century. In 1978, the man in charge was Robert F. Carey.

Like many racetracks constructed around the turn of the century, Hawthorne’s physical structure had been added on to over the years, with those original wooden structures within its walls. Other Chicago area tracks had dealt with fires as well, Fairmount losing its stands in 1974 and Washington Park burning to the ground in 1977.

Carey made sure the track had one of the best sprinkler systems available and other interventions, but a spate of small fires in October and November 1978 had track officials on high alert. On Oct. 29, one had broken out in the clubhouse, damaging cables and wiring for the totalizer board. Three weeks later, around 5 a.m. on Nov. 19, another fire broke out in the same area, but this time, the conflagration would have far-reaching consequences – and a possibly criminal connection.  

 

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Triple dead heat at Hawthorne. (Photo by Ryan Thompson)

Up in Flames

The Hawthorne fire quickly consumed the track’s main structure, destroying the jockey silks, riding equipment, and more. No one was hurt and the hundreds of horses stabled on the grounds were in no danger. Fire departments from around the area responded, doing their best to put the flames out, but were no match for the fully involved blaze. Thomas Carey, Robert’s son, hurried to the racetrack and helped two firefighters break into the racing secretary’s office to grab the safe with the foal papers. Right after they pulled the safe out, the roof collapsed.

Carey risked breaking into the burning building to grab those papers for one very good reason: every horse on those grounds could not race without them. When horses are registered with the Jockey Club, they receive a set of foal papers that goes with them from racetrack to racetrack. Each time they are set to make a start, the track identifier must have those documents for the horse to race. Losing those in the fire would have been devastating for every owner and trainer working on the Hawthorne backside.

With the fire out and the Careys contemplating their next move, investigators sifted through the debris to determine a cause. They soon discovered that the fire had been deliberately set, with evidence of accelerant or propellant poured throughout the grandstand. Whoever the responsible party was, they clearly knew what they were doing.

Why, though, would anyone want to burn down the area’s oldest racetrack? Who could be behind this devastation?

Conspiracy?

With Hawthorne’s devastating fire declared arson, investigators started looking at potential suspects. Theories included underworld connections, unhappy that their messenger betting services had been shut down; angry bettors or resentful horsemen; and an ongoing ringer conspiracy, which had entered a horse with fake foal papers the day before the fire.

The horse in question was Roman Decade, a claimer who had been sent to Hawthorne with false documentation that said his name was Charollius. Roman Decade as Charollius won the second race on Nov. 18 and paid $10.80 to win, the daily double for the first and second races paying out $113.60.

A stack of partially blank foal papers had disappeared from the Jockey Club’s offices in New York in the early 1970s. The people involved in this conspiracy would fill out those papers and pass off a better horse as a horse known to be a poor performer, taking advantage of the long odds on those horses to collect higher payouts when the ringer won. Because they depended on using fake foal papers to elude detection, did these conspirators set fire to Hawthorne to cover up their crime, anticipating that the falsified documents would go up in flames and no one would be the wiser?

While the arson investigation for the Hawthorne fire did not lead to any prosecutions, that conspiracy of ringers did. Investigators discovered the ruse involving Roman Decade posing as Charollius and suspended two owners in connection, Charles Wonder and William Combee. Also pinged for the scheme was trainer Michael Reavis, who admitted to the switch but also said that he was not aware of the ringer until after the race. Additionally, another trainer connected to Wonder, William R. Price, was suspended in Kentucky earlier in the year for saddling a ringer provided by the owner.

By the time the conspiracy was fully uncovered, eight men, including Wonder, faced charges for running ringers at nine different racetracks. Some received jail time for their crimes, but none was ever connected to the Hawthorne fire. The arsonists behind the Nov. 19, 1978, fire have never been identified.

Hawthorne Resurgent

Robert and Thomas Carey saw Hawthorne Race Course through the nearly two-year rebuilding process, celebrating the historic track’s return in late September 1980. The Chicago area’s oldest racetrack is currently the only active racetrack in that part of the state and features both Thoroughbred and harness racing. 

It was a tribute to the track’s long history that the Carey family worked hard to rebuild after that devastating fire. Its connection to that conspiracy of ringers active in 1978 and the mysterious circumstances around the blaze that damaged the track makes Hawthorne one of those memorable stories of True Crime in Horse Racing.

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