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The Sport of Kings

A look at Chicago's history as the national center of thoroughbred racing

Chicago has been one of the greatest sports cities in the United States for more than a century, and most fans know about the exploits of the beloved Cubs, White Sox,  Bears and Blackhawks, about such fabulous events as the Dempsey-Tunney “Long Count” heavyweight fight in 1927. However, less well known was Chicago’s fame and notoriety as a national center of thoroughbred racing for more than 125 years.
    Chicagoans have enjoyed horse racing since the 1830s when it was a frontier town. The city had its first jockey club in 1840, sponsoring harness racing, the main turf sport for 40 years. In 1854, the Garden City track opened, followed one year later by noted politician John Wentworth’s Brighton Park.
    The main site of post-Civil War racing was Dexter Park, located adjacent to the Union Stockyard in 1867, until 1878 when West Side Driving Track opened next to Garfield Park, for both harness and thoroughbred racing. Five years later, 500 wealthy Chicagoans, including one-third of the city’s millionaires, established the elite Washington Park Jockey Club. The WPJC’s $150,000 Washington Park Race Track (61st and Cottage Grove) opened one year later and immediately became one of the most prestigious courses in the country. Opening Day became a major date on the city’s social calendar, and the press gave detailed coverage to the fashions worn by the wives of jockey club members. The highlight of 1884 was the American Derby, first won by the great African-American jockey Isaac Murphy, who won three times. It became a classic American event. In 1893, the year of the Columbian Exposition, the winning purse was $50,000, second highest in 19th century North American racing.
    Yet the “sport of kings” operated under a shadow,  primarily because of the gambling associated with the sport, which many Protestants considered sinful.  Only with the Pool Selling Act of 1887 did racing seem to gain a legal footing in Illinois. Bookmakers controlled wagering on and off the track, particularly Mike McDonald, the first kingpin of organized crime, who employed his clout within the Democratic party. McDonald’s power convinced horseman Edward Corrigan, the manager of the proprietary West Side Track, to move his operations in 1891, when his lease expired, building the new Hawthorne Race Track in Stickney and leaving the city.
    A syndicate of politically connected book-makers led by McDonald (and connected to such powerful aldermen as Bathhouse John Coughlin and Johnny Powers, “the Prince of Boodlers”) took over the site and established Garfield Park, which became very profitable, though races were of questionable integrity, and the racing season lasted until mid-December. The reform Republican mayor Hempstead Washburne decided not to renew the track’s amusement license because of the gambling problem and the low-life characters drawn to the track.  In the summer of 1892, the police closed down the track following a shootout that resulted in three deaths, including horseman  James M. Brown, a former Texas Ranger. Two years later, gamblers George Hankins and John Condon opened the Harlem Race Track in the western suburbs (Forest Park). In 1894, there was growing opposition nationally to racing and Washington Park closed. Hawthorne also closed in 1896. In 1898, Washington Park and Hawthorne reopened, and a new track opened in Worth in 1900, but in 1905, the city and county halted racing because of the gambling.
    Off-track gambling still flourished at downtown poolrooms, epitomized by the betting parlor in the movie, The Sting, and with handbook dealers operating at saloons, cigar shops and candy stores in working-class neighborhoods. Four syndicates divided off-track gambling, with the South Side controlled by Jim O’Leary, son of Mrs. O’Leary of Chicago Fire fame, and the downtown controlled by city councilmen Bathhouse John Coughlin and Hinky Dink Kenna. However, Mont Tennes consolidated the business, intimidating rivals with bombings and by taking over the national racing wire in 1909.  When he retired in 1927, he sold the wire to Moses Annenberg, a wealthy publisher who had started out in Chicago in the violent world of newspaper circulation management.
    In 1909, Alderman Thomas Carey bought Hawthorne and tried unsuccessfully to resume racing until the fun-loving 1920s, when the turf enjoyed a national revival. In 1922, Hawthorne staged a two-week meet employing oral betting, which it expanded to 25 days in 1923, the year Aurora Downs began operations. The courts ruled a year later that oral betting was legal, leading to the opening in 1926 of Homewood’s Washington Park and Crete’s Lincoln Fields.
    Seeking a new source of revenue, the state legalized pari-mutuel betting in 1927, which led to the opening of the outstanding and innovative Arlington Racetrack, with the world’s first all-electric totalizer in 1933. A syndicate led by John Hertz, founder of the Yellow Cab Company, operated the track for several years. His wife’s stallion Count Fleet captured the Triple Crown in 1943. Benjamin Lindheimer, a politically connected real estate developer who operated Washington Park, took over Arlington in 1940. Another important new half-mile track was Sportsman’s Park in 1932, converted from Al Capone’s Hawthorne Kennel Club by his attorney Edward J. O’Hare. The Bidwell family, owners of the Cardinals football team, ran the track from 1943 until it closed in 2002 to make way for automobile racing.
    World War II curtailed racing nationally to conserve gasoline. Lincoln Fields closed in 1941 and Arlington in 1943, shifting its major races to Washington Park. In 1946, Maywood Park opened for harness racing, followed by Lincoln Fields in 1954, renamed Balmoral in 1955.
    In 1969, a huge scandal rocked Chicago racing. Lindheimer’s daughter, Marge Everett, manager of Arlington and Washington Park since 1960, admitted she had helped Governor Otto Kerner, Jr., and other Democratic politicians secure racing stock at below market rates to help her get choice racing dates. Kerner was impeached and sent to prison.
    Madison Square Garden Corporation bought Arlington in 1971, which in 1981 hosted the Arlington Million, the world’s first million-dollar thoroughbred race. Two years later, it was sold to a syndicate headed by businessman Richard L. Duchossois. Arlington is the centerpiece of Midwestern racing, despite a 1985 fire that destroyed the original grandstand. The facility reopened in 1989 as the Arlington International Racecourse, run since 2000 by Churchill Downs, Inc.

Published: October 11, 2009
Issue: November 2009 Sports Issue