Every sports fan has his or her own harbinger of spring.
Pitchers and catchers reporting. The Daytona 500. The Masters. The spring thoroughbred meet at Hawthorne.
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OK, that last one may be a stretch, but for horse racing fans the Hawthorne meet, which begins Friday and runs through the end of April, means the end of a six-week period without any local thoroughbred racing.
And though the February schedule is light -- racing only on Fridays and Saturdays -- the cards are packed, the purses are up and the folks at Hawthorne are looking to piggyback off the momentum gained from successful 2010 spring and fall meets.
"We are coming off a year where we turned the corner," Hawthorne assistant general manager Jim Miller said. "We were up in total handle on each meet and were able to put ourselves in a much better position in regards to purses. While we aren't there yet, we are able to offer higher purses (5 to 7 percent increase) for our horsemen this spring with a better mix of races as well."
Nearly 100 horses are entered for Friday's 9-race card and Miller expects similar full decks throughout the month and higher numbers in March and April compared to a year ago.
Many familiar names return this season. Leading riders Tim Thornton and Tanner Riggs will be joined by Eddie Perez, Brandon Meier, Julio Felix and Inosencio Diego.
After a great start to last fall, Jozbin Santana returns to Hawthorne and will be joined in the jockey colony by Seth Martinez and Constantino Roman, a bug boy looking to have a breakthrough meet.
On the training side, Joel Berndt will be looking to defend his training title but is sure to get tough competition from Frank Kirby, Mike Reavis, Jamie Ness, Chris Dorris, Brian Williamson, and Roger Brueggemann. Miller says to keep an eye out for George Leonard, Steve Manley and Ralph Martinez as well.
The fall meet's leading owner, Midwest Thoroughbreds, will also have a string of horses at Hawthorne for trainers Brueggemann and Jamie Ness.
"I expect another strong meet and expect positive figures once again when we finish in the end of April," Miller said.