The Family Track

For three generations a Carey has been surprised to find himself running an Illinois racecourse. And loving it.

By Sandra Pesmen

Fifty-seven-year-old Tom Carey sometimes stands at the window of his expansive, antique-filled office, looks down over the carefully manicured Hawthorne Race Course in Stickney, Illinois, festooned with gaily flying green and white flags, and ponders how he got where he is.

Like his father and grandfather before him, this attorney, who runs Hawthorne today, prepared for and succeeded at an entirely different career — before his love for his family, the track, and the sport lured him back. His story goes to show that the most roundabout route to the door of a family business can be, for some, the best way to get there.

One of the five oldest racecourses in the country, and the oldest that remains family-owned and operated, Hawthorne fell more or less unexpectedly into the hands of the first Thomas Carey in 1904. It was Chicago's first racetrack, built in 1891 by a racing character of the day named Ed Corrigan, on 120 acres of farmland west of the city proper.

"We don't know if my grandfather loaned the money to Corrigan or if he just held the mortgage," says Carey. "But whichever it was, Corrigan couldn't keep up the payments, so a few years later, the track came to him."

Running the place was the last thing the first Thomas Carey wanted or expected to do. He'd come to Chicago from West Brookfield, Massachusetts, several years earlier and founded the Carey Brick Company, today known as the American Brick Company, on Chicago's South Side.

He certainly had no time to manage a track, but before he knew it, love of the sport had seduced him into the job.

As one of his seven children, 82-year-old Helen Jacobsen, remembers, "Our father used to take us out to the track occasionally, but we never knew he owned the place. There was no clubhouse in those days, so we just sat in a box in the grandstand like everybody else."

She also remembers that in addition to placing a bet or two himself, the late Thomas Carey sometimes let his children place wagers. "There were 'oral bookies' in those days. They took bets and were supposed to go and place them for us," she says. "But one night I bet $5 on a horse, and that darn bookmaker took my money and made off with it. When the race was over and my horse won, I discovered he had never placed the bet. I was ready to kill him." She pauses, then adds thoughtfully, "I was only about 12, and now I wonder why I was so mad. It was Father's money."

Eventually, Thomas found it too tough to run both a track and a brickyard. In 1922 he leased the track to the Chicago Businessmen's Association, which managed it for him until 1948. His son Robert, father of today's general manager, then assumed control. But that was never in old Thomas's plans either.

Robert bad grown up doing manual labor in the brickyard and at the track after school and summers, as most of the Carey boys still do. Also, like all Carey men, past and present, Robert was blessed with athletic and scholarly skills. In 1926, during his last year at Notre Dame University Law School, he won the Indiana State collegiate high jump championship.

After graduation, to his father's great pride, Robert joined one of the oldest law firms in Illinois, today called Carey, Filter, White & Boland. For many years he concentrated only on building his law practice. For a long time, he paid little attention to what was happening to the track, and his father didn't encourage his interest. "After my grandfather died," grandson Tom says, "his trust began to sell some properties, and my father stepped in. None of us ever talked about it, but my father really cared about preserving the brickyard, the track, and the ranch in California." So, in 1948, Robert Carey took over control of the track.

Although Robert never gave Tom, the eldest of his six children, any conscious career guidance, or even talked much about his own feelings, he clearly influenced the young man.

"My dad was reserved and caring, but he kept his hands off," says Tom, reflecting upon their unique relationship, which made up with love what it lacked in communication. "One day, while I was playing football for Notre Dame, my coach told me my father had come to see him about how I was doing. The coach asked me why I didn't talk with my father and I remember being puzzled, because I thought we did talk."

At the beginning of the Korean War, Tom was 21 facing very serious career decisions concerning college and the armed services. He decided to take the coach's advice and telephoned his father. "We had a long conversation," Tom remembers. "I did all the talking and when I finished he said, 'Sounds like you considered all the facts. When I come up Saturday to see the game, let me know what you decide.' I just sat there holding the phone. I thought to myself, 'That's supposed to be a conversation?'"

Now, many years later, Tom understands his father's attitude: "My father didn't talk to us any more than my grandfather talked to him, I suppose. But he was telling me it's my decision, and I guess he was also letting me know that he had confidence I'd do the right thing."

Tom decided on law school, and after receiving his degree from Northwestern University, he made another wise decision. He joined his father's law firm. From then on, as Robert spent more and more of his time managing the family's resources, his son was at his side.

"I had the feeling my dad was trying to push me away from the track," Tom remembers. "I think he felt it had interfered with his practice of law and he didn't want it to interfere with mine."

Without much discussion, the men found themselves working together, negotiating contracts and handling the myriad details that racecourse management entails. In 1962, as both Careys were by now serious about their involvement, Robert bought Suburban Downs Incorporated, thereby expanding the Carey interests to include harness racing. By 1969, despite Robert's subtle attempts to discourage him, Tom had become his father's partner.

A devastating fire destroyed Hawthorne's grandstand and gutted the clubhouse in 1978. The Careys began immediately to rebuild the entire park, which was completed at the end of 1979. It reopened for harness racing in February, 1980.

The newly rebuilt Hawthorne Race Course featured an ultramodern, weatherized, completely glass-enclosed, 15,000-seat grandstand overlooking a new one-mile racing oval. Thoroughbred racing resumed in September 1980, with an added opening-day stakes race — an unprecedented $100,000 event to be known as the Hawthorne Derby.

When Robert died that year, Tom once more did as his father had before him — he took over as general manager of the track. "I just wanted to be sure my family's interests would be taken care of," he explains.

The following year he oversaw the complete reconstruction of the track to achieve optimum standards for full-mile thoroughbred racing. In 1987, Tom Carey began another multimillion-dollar improvement program that included a tunnel from the grandstand to the infield large enough to handle 100,000 fans who could view the races, picnic, or participate in a number of special events. He also built a paddock in the infield so fans could watch the horses being saddled.

Today Tom spends full time at the racetrack during the season. As general manager, he represents eight separate trusts held by his aunts and uncles and their heirs, as well as by his two brothers and three sisters.

None are complaining. The track handles an average of $2 million in wagers a day. In 1988, thoroughbred racing brought in $96 million from on-track betting and $83 million from the newer off-track betting. The 1988 harness racing handles were $48 million for on-track betting and $27 million for off-track betting.

Members of the Carey family, according to track employees, are good bosses. "They're easy to work with," says Leonard Giardelli, assistant to trainer Wayne Catalano, who's sitting out in his barn during the third race of this day. "If you need something, like more stalls, you just ask the Careys and you get 'em. At a lot of other places, they close the door on you and say, 'You got all you're gonna get."'

"We never fire anyone," jokes 72-year-old Bill Collins, one of Tom's cousins, who himself retired several years ago. "But sometimes we get lucky and they die."

Tom tells the story about the time years ago when the late Frank Ashley was announcing races. "I was walking along the track with my father and all of a sudden we saw the horses shoot by. I said, 'Hey, what's happening?' because there was no sound coming over the loudspeaker. We ran upstairs and found Frank announcing the race into a dead mike because he had forgotten to flip the switch. It happened more than once, but we never had the heart to tell him it was time to quit. Eventually, he moved south because of the climate."

Insisting, against the evidence, that he's not a workaholic, Tom, divorced and remarried, still carries a full load as partner of his law firm. He is also chairman of the board of Chicago's South Shore Hospital, and sits on the board of the Affiliated Bank Group — all in addition to running Hawthorne. His second wife, Sue, shares his active involvement with several charities.

Of all his jobs, managing the family track is Tom's true love. "Racing is the greatest athletic event I've ever seen," he says, "Pound for pound, jockeys are the strongest, most courageous, finest athletes in the world. They're barely 100 pounds and they ride a 1200-pound animal at speeds of 35 to 40 miles an hour with 20 feet of action all around. One bad step and they're on the ground."

The Careys themselves don't own horses. "We once bought one with some of my father's friends," Tom says. "The first time he was supposed to run at our track, I called the trainer who said the horse was in great shape. Then I called the racing secretary and he said the horse fit the race like a glove. Then I called the track superintendent who told me the horse loved that kind of track. So we bet our money and the horse didn't come close."

The next time Tom saw that the horse was running, he checked with all the same people and they all said the same things. The Careys bet their money and lost again.

The next time the horse ran, Tom called the experts again. The trainer said, 'The horse is off today." The secretary said, "The trainer's crazy to put that horse in this race, he's way outclassed." The track superintendent said, "He hates that kind of track, he'll never make those turns."

The horse won and paid $48. None of the owners had a penny on him. "You could say we phased out of owning racehorses," Tom says.

As for Hawthorne's future, although Tom, like his father, doesn't tell his five children what to do with their lives, it's probably safe to bet that when a representative of the next Carey generation is needed, one of them will step forward and do what's required "to protect the family interests."

One daughter is currently studying law, and another spent last summer working for a trainer exercising horses. All Tom's sons work around the track during their school breaks, just as Tom, his brothers, his father, and his uncles did.

"You know something? They really make those kids work!" says security guard Bob Bishop, a retired house painter who has been around the track as a patron and part-time licensed pony exercise 'boy' for years. "Mr. Carey doesn't spoil 'em. He starts them out back in the barns or on the track and makes them really work. They're actually learning the business."

Of course, things don't always work out. Last year one of Tom's college-age sons finally graduated from the barns to a job in the parimutuel department. But he wasn't as conscientious as he should have been. He came in late and took days off. This summer, when he reapplied, the department manager called Tom to ask what he should do. I asked if he'd hire the boy if he'd come in off the street, and the manager said 'no,"' Tom recalls. "So I told him, 'Then don't hire him.' The boy found a less responsible job, but that manager knows I would have questioned his judgment if he'd taken my son back."

Obviously, that's Tom Carey's way of telling his son, as his father once told him, "You make the decision about what you want to do with your life, and then let me know what it is."

—S.P.