12/27/2015 1:30AM

Balmoral: Large crowd bids farewell to Illinois track

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David Baum Photo
Doc's Deal will be the last horse to visit the Balmoral Park winner's circle.

A blanket of fog had descended on Balmoral Park and rain was falling but cars were streaming into the parking lot. There was not a seat to be had in the dining room and there were lines at the betting windows in the crowded grandstand.

It was a scene reminiscent of the good old days of Chicago harness racing.

"I wish all the people who say it's a dying sport were here tonight to see this," said U.S. Trotting Association President Phil Langley, the treasurer of Balmoral and a long-time member of Chicago harness racing's hierarchy.

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But this 12-race program on Saturday night wasn't an occasion for celebration.

It was a sad night, the last program in the history of Balmoral Park, which came into the racing world as a thoroughbred track on Aug. 9, 1926 and transitioned to harness racing in 1968.

Hammered by a $77.8 million judgment awarded to four of the state's most affluent riverboat casinos, Balmoral has been living in Chapter 11 bankruptcy for the past year and it application for 2016 dates and that of its sister track, Maywood Park, were rejected by the Illinois Racing Board in September.

The tracks were on life support and the Racing Board pulled the plug.

The judgment against Balmoral and Maywood was part of the fallout in the bribery trial that sent former Gov. Rod Blagojevich to prison for 14 years.

Blagojevich's most serious transgression was trying to sell President Barack Obama's Senate seat, but an FBI wiretap also revealed that one of his aides had shaken down Balmoral President John Johnston when he called to urge the ex-governor to sign an extension of the impact fee that was levied against the four casinos to bolster purses at Balmoral, Maywood and the state's two thoroughbred tracks, Arlington International Racecourse and Hawthorne Race Course.

Although the extension bill had passed the House and Senate and Johnston never made the $100,000 contribution the aide had asked for, the fact that he allegedly agreed to come up with the money prompted the U.S. 7th Court of Appeals jury to find him guilty of bribery and award the casinos the $77.8 million judgment.

Johnston hasn't been involved in the track's day to day operations since the judgment was awarded and his brother, Duke, has been running the track, but he was there for closing night.

"It's a sad day for Illinois racing overall and I feel sorry for myself least of all," John Johnston said. "I'm most sorry for the employees and I'm also sorry for the trainers, owners and breeders and the future of harness racing. Fewer states are interested in racing in general. In Illinois, I think we're a victim of poor regulatory and legislative management.

"It's a very sad ending for a tradition-filled track in what once was a premier racing state.

"There's no winner in all of this."

The distinction of winning the 12th and final race went to Doc's Deal. Competing on a sloppy track in a $3,100 race for pacers who were non-winners of $1,500 in the preceding five starts, the 6-year-old gelding prevailed by 6 1/4 lengths over Twinkle Like A Star, his closest pursuer in the field of field of nine. The time for the final mile was 1:53 1/5, a career best for the winner.

Ridge Warren drove the winner, who is owned by Windy City Farm and trained by Rick Schulze.

The closing night crowd of 6,590 contributed to a total handle of $1,347,100,

"I can't believe it's closing, and not going to reopen," said Sandy Stafford from the nearby town of Steger as she headed for the exits. "It's such a historical place and it was such an exciting place to come to. People in this area are going to miss it a lot."