Competition can be fierce for the top horses.

"If you get a good horse, there's going to be 10 jocks there and five different agents trying to get on him," Meier said. "You're fighting for it every time. So don't screw up and stay on the trainer's good side, because it's an excuse to lose your spot and get someone else on it."


Many of the jockeys at Hawthorne are under 40, but their spectators are not. It's a Wednesday afternoon and the grandstand is quiet. Only a few hundred people are around to see the day's races—many of them sitting in front of TVs so they can bet on races held elsewhere. And many of them appear to be in their 50s or 60s.

A study conducted by research company McKinsey & Co. found that few 18- to 34-year-olds watch thoroughbred racing except for the 1.8 million people in the demographic who view the Kentucky Derby on TV once a year. In response, the Jockey Club, the sport's governing body, recently commissioned a publicity tour to try to attract a younger audience. It started an ad campaign, a website and a bus tour that hit South by Southwest last month in Austin, Texas.

Meanwhile, Hawthorne has more problems than gray hair.

Horses have been sprinting around the country's fifth oldest track since May 20, 1891, when 6,000 fans came to see a five-race card at a place that was then in a rural area outside Chicago. Since then Cicero has become one of the biggest industrial centers in the country and hasn't exactly retained its pastoral charm.

Al Capone started Sportsman's Park in Cicero as a dog track and a shady way to make money by fixing races, but it eventually hosted many horse races. In 1973, 40,000 people came to Arlington Park in Chicago's northwest suburbs to see Secretariat race a few weeks after winning the Triple Crown. Over the next two decades, the sport drew in lots of interest and money, setting a wagering record of $1.29 billion in 1992, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

But over the last two decades, casinos have drawn bettors away and wagering has fallen off a cliff. The Illinois Gaming Board rejected Hawthorne's $500 million proposal to put a casino on its grounds and renovate the racing facility in 2008, and it took another hit last year when the Illinois Derby, its biggest race of the year, was excluded from the list of Kentucky Derby qualifying races.

To add to the course's misery, an outbreak of an equine herpes virus hit its fall meet in 2012 and killed six horses and infected many more. It's created a cycle where purse money has shrunk and there are fewer quality animals to ride.

"It's bad right now," Meier said. "Some of these horses are being made to race every week or 10 days and they can't handle it—they're tired or hurt. Ideally, they should only be out there every three or four weeks."

On May 1, Meier is moving to Canturbury Park in Minnesota—a track thriving because it doubles as a casino-resort. The purses are bigger there, he said.

It also represents a fresh start for Meier, who feels like his bad injury history is causing trainers to use him less. He was in saddle only once during Saturday's slate of nine races—finishing third in a $10,000-purse race.

"I hear 'I don't want to get you hurt again,' and it's discouraging," he said. "It might be nice to go to a new place where people don't know me or my dad and I can kind of start over from scratch."

But for now, Meier, and the rest of the young jockeys will focus on Saturday's annual Illinois Derby, still a high stakes race with a hefty $750,000 prize.

"My next race could be my last one. I hope not, but you never know," Thornton said. "Things can go wrong. You just hope for the best and have fun while you're doing it and maybe win some money."

Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.

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