12/27/2015 2:30AM

Balmoral: Large crowd bids farewell to Illinois track

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."


John More than 1 year ago
pocob4u8    I remember when the lights with put up around balmoral race track, those were changes, I remember the rabbit starter running in front of the tote board, that was changed too, I remember all those magic tricks in balmoral race track, where did all that go? I remember the glass windows being install, I was there, I remember the leaky water facet, that was still there, I remember revisiting balmoral race track last year, what happened? Changes, think up a better way now. Too many investments happening. A farm problem, maybe. Business still. Don,t cash in everything yet.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When you run a fixed gambling racket (horse racing officials), you are going to be caught. Aqueduct and Santa Anita... You are next.
jhonnyboy0123 More than 1 year ago
The Johnstons, Bidwells and the Careys share responsiblity for horseracing dying in Illinois. They were sooo busy counting the profits in the 70's thru 90's that they didn't have any foresight to see that the casinos/boats were gonna cut into their profits. They should've worked together to have the racinos in their facilities. The cash cow has dried up and here we are now! I can't believe there won't be year round harness racing in the state of Illinois. Chicago used to be the 2nd biggest harness racing market in North America after the Meadowlands. WOW!
Tim More than 1 year ago
An all-around shame. Pull the sheet over yet another one-time staple of harness racing, and in this case, closing down the rest of an entire racing circuit! But I don't put all of the blame on inept government. The lifeblood of horse racing is keeping people wagering but now a huge portion of the gambling public is content to sit and stare at a video slot and spin their penny and nickel (or even dollar) wheels every 15 seconds rather than spend a day or night watching horse races, be they live or simulcast. It's difficult to justify legislation that rewards horse racing with revenue from other gaming sources just because the gambling public is too simple-minded to enjoy it's product.
Nathan More than 1 year ago
Doubleheaders. Flats in the afternoon and head to the trots at night. Good old days.
william More than 1 year ago
I loved the sunday double shift......afternoon racing at Arlington followed by bullring Balmoral at night. Meier, Guidry, Diaz, Baird.....my favorite Chicago jockeys over the past 30 years. Trainers.....Jere Smith in a league of his own. Chicago Racing....soon to be RIP.
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
good riddance...to this and every other facility that does not run an honest program. integrity integrity integrity or death.
John Agnello More than 1 year ago
i used to train and drive harness horses for 18 years, back in the late 70's through early 90's. and unfortunately, whoever said that harness racing is a dying sport, is exactly right. just look at what has happened in Michigan alone. mismanagement, greedy politicians and racetrack owners, unscrupulous drivers and patrons alike has sealed the fate of the Michigan Harness tracks. Very sad that this has happened as they're a lot of good people who count on these racetracks being in business to earn a living.
Walter Mitchell More than 1 year ago
crooks crooks and more crooks. Take the occupation away from working people and hand out more to the non-taxpaying welfare people.
Vince Lentini More than 1 year ago
and the idiot has spoken
Tim More than 1 year ago
Uh, the tracks closed because not enough people were betting on horse races and were mindlessly playing slot machines instead...
Glenn Green More than 1 year ago
Was there for closing night and was shocked by the crowd. If only 1/3 of the crowd had made it out there a couple times a month it may have kept the place open. Open a track across the border in Indiana and keep racing in the area.