Kentucky Derby anticipation was building late Friday morning at Club Hawthorne Joliet, the city’s new off-track betting parlor.
All 250 seats inside Club Hawthorne had been reserved for the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. The party tent to accommodate the overflow crowd was set up in the parking lot. And horse racing fans looking to beat the Derby rush were placing their bets.
“That’s why I came today,” said Leonard Dembo of Streator. “I came to bet today.”
Kyle Hines of Gardner also was betting Friday but on the Kentucky Oaks, the races held the day before the Derby at Churchill Downs.
Hines will return Saturday with his grandfather, uncle and friend for what has become a family tradition – watching and betting on the Kentucky Derby in Joliet. They all have reserved their seats.
“It’s big,” Hines said. “Everybody comes in and puts down at least a $2 bet on their favorite horse name or color.”
It was Hines’ first trip Club Hawthorne Joliet, which opened two weeks ago at 2200 W. Jefferson St.
Hawthorne Race Course, which owns 16 OTBs in the Chicago area, moved its Joliet location from what was called Bookie Magee’s Hideaway and OTB.
The difference between the two locations is kind of like night and day. At least, that’s the intention.
“This is what the new generation of race fans is comfortable with,” said Dakota Shultz, marketing and communications manager for Hawthorne. “It’s lighter. You can see it from the outside.”
The expansive glass facade facing Jefferson Street is a contrast from Bookie Magee’s Hideway, which was located in the back of the Menards-Walmart shopping center a couple of blocks away. As its name suggested, Bookie Magee’s Hideaway had a throwback theme to another era.
“Usually OTBs are kind of dark,” Hines said. “There was some of that old-school feel, I don’t know why, that you’re not supposed to be here.”
The open atmosphere of Club Hawthorne seemed to appeal to the bettors who talked about Club Hawthorne, while having a drink at the bar and watching some of the 150 or so TVs set up in the building.
“I love this place,” said Georgie Collins of Bonfield. “Dark and dreary was the other place. This place is nice and bright.”
Club Hawthorne Joliet follows the pattern of new and remodeled OTBs within the Hawthorne’s network of OTBs, Shultz said.
Even calling them off-track betting parlors seems antiquated, he noted.
“You can bet on your phone now,” Shultz said, adding that sometimes he does so even when he’s at the OTB.
Add to that the legalization of sports betting, and the aura of secrecy just doesn’t fit anymore.
“There’s been such a cultural change about betting,” Shultz said, “I think people are more accepting of it.”
Bookie Magee’s Hideway opened in 2004 as Joliet’s OTB had been moved out of the old Jefferson Square, which was since demolished to make room for the Menards-Walmart center.
Shultz said Hawthorne wants to attract people beyond the horse racing set. The many TVs offer a variety of sports beyond horse racing.
Daryl Voska, managing partner for Black eyed Susan, the food and beverage vendor at the Joliet OTB as well as two others in Lansing and Evergreen Park, offers a menu of barbecued food and a bar with a wide bourbon selection.
“Barbecue, bourbon and betting,” Voska said with a grin.
He’ll be planting Black-eyed Susans, the flower of the Preakness Stakes, around Club Hawthorne once the weather warms up.
Voska has other plans, including bourbon seminars with the first one likely to be sometime in early summer.
There’s still work to do. The outdoor Club Hawthorn sign isn’t up yet, which Shultz said has been due to high winds making it difficult. But one priority has been met.
“It’s been a race to the finish line,” Shultz said, “to get open for the derby.”