Ask an expert - TONY SOMONE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
Last updated 7/26/2023 at 4:01pm | View PDF
What does a harness horsemen's association do?
For 40 years Hinsdale has been home to a nonprofit organization that supports an activity enjoyed around the world - harness racing.
Headquartered in an office at 15 Spinning Wheel Road, the Illinois Harness Horsemen's Association works to preserve, promote and maintain harness racing in Illinois. Led by Executive Director Tony Somone, the organization represents 2,500 to 3,000 members of the industry, including owners, breeders, trainers, drivers and caretakers/grooms.
"The location was perfect," Somone said of the association's choice of Hinsdale as its home.
When the office was established in 1983, harness racing was taking place at Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero, Maywood Park in Melrose Park and Balmoral in Crete. The Hinsdale office allowed easy access to all three. Today, harness racing takes place only at Hawthorne and during state and county fairs. But Somone said it remains a great location because of its accessibility to venues, present and future.
Plans are in the works to develop racing venues paired with casinos, known as "racinos," at Hawthorne and at a yet-to-be-determined location in the south suburbs. Such establishments have been successful in other states and could mean a big resurgence of the sport here.
Harness racing is much like thoroughbred racing, Somone said.
"It's horse racing but with a different breed of animal with a different gait," he said.
Instead of riding atop the horse, the rider, known as a driver in harness racing, sits behind the horse in a two-wheeled carriage called a sulky.
Because harness racing makes its money through wagering rather than ticket sales, it falls under far more scrutiny and regulation than other sports, Somone said. Even small changes to the sport must go through painstaking steps to gain approval.
"We don't have the fan base that we used to," Somone said, partially due to the influx of gambling opportunities created with video gaming. "We haven't been able to change quick enough to give the customers what they want."
But all that could change with 2019 legislation allowing the creation of racinos.
"That's been terrific to save and prop up the horseracing industry," said Somone, who said he's hopeful it will do the same for harness racing. "That's what we are depending on to put us back on a national level," he said, referring to the 1980s and '90s, when Illinois was a leader in the sport.
Somone leads a small staff that is overseen by a 15-member volunteer board made up of people from various roles within the sport.
Racing will take place this year at 19 county fairs and two state fairs before the racing season begins Sept. 9 at Hawthorne. Races will take place there every Friday, Saturday and Sunday through the end of the year.
Somone said he discovered harness racing during college, but it wasn't the sport itself or the chance to win big that drew him in.
"I just fell in love with the backstretch community," he said, referring to the area of the track where the horses live and where the trainers and groomers work. Somone started out cleaning stalls and later became a partial owner before stepping into the role of executive director in 2007.
"It's a great sport," he said.
- by Sandy Illian Bosch