12/23/2015 10:32AM

Harness: Balmoral Park bids adieu

David Baum Photo
Horses will race around the mile track at Balmoral Park for the final time on Saturday.

For the third time in a history that dates back to Aug. 9, 1926—when, with great expectations, it opened for thoroughbred racing bearing the name Lincoln Fields—Balmoral Park will go out of business at the conclusion of Saturday night’s standardbred program.

This time the odds are about 77,800,000-to-1 against there being a next time.

The reason is that Balmoral and its sister track, Maywood Park, are bankrupt and have a $77.8 million judgment hanging over their heads.

There will be 12 races on the closing night card and all have 10-horse fields, the maximum the starting gate can accommodate.

Purses total $45,950, ranging from a low of $2,500 to a high of $5,700 for two races for pacers and the only race for trotters.

The paltry purses reflect how far Illinois racetracks—which don’t have slot machines to funnel money into purses—have fallen in competition with tracks in other states that have that subsidy.

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Total handle on Illinois harness racing (on-track, inter-track and off-track) plummeted from $591,397,171 in 1992 to $122,110,793 in 2014, and the amount will be substantially less when the 2015 year-end statistics are tabulated.

Ironically, although the intention of Balmoral’s founding fathers was for it to be a great thoroughbred track, it was during the last 17 years of its 47-year history as a harness track that it attracted the finest horses in North America every year for its showcase races.

After now-defunct Sportsman’s Park terminated the Midwest’s most successful harness meeting in an ill-fated attempt to become a combination auto/thoroughbred racing venue, the lucrative and prestigious American-National races for pacers and trotters were transferred to Balmoral in 1998.

Thanks to the American-Nationals, for the first time Balmoral became recognized as one of North America’s premier harness tracks.

Headed by patriarch Billy Johnston, the long-time president of harness racing at Sportsman’s, the Johnston family joined with the family of the New York Yankees’ principal owner George Steinbrenner to buy Balmoral for $8 million in 1987 and add a mile track at a cost of $750,000.

Nine years earlier the Johnstons and associates had taken over Maywood through a long-term lease with the Galt family that owns the track.

Billy’s sons, John and Duke, eventually succeeded him in running the tracks. John became Balmoral’s president and Maywood’s vice-president and Duke became Maywood’s president and Balmoral’s vice-president.

Both went on to become nationally-respected track operators.

But when an aide to now-imprisoned former Governor Rod Blagojevich tried to shake down John Johnston it began the chain of events that culminated in the $77.8 million judgment that was awarded to four Illinois riverboat casinos late last year by the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Attorneys for the boats successfully argued that Blagojevich signed a casino impact fee extension in return for the promise of a $100,000 campaign contribution from John Johnston.

An FBI wire-tap of Johnston’s conversation with a Blagojevich aide (when he called to urge the governor to sign the extension bill that had passed the House and Senate) was used as evidence against him because the aide asked if the $100,000 was forthcoming and Johnston allegedly said it was.

Despite the fact that the contribution never was made and the Chicago area’s two thoroughbred tracks, Arlington International Racecourse and Hawthorne Race Course, also were beneficiaries when Blagojevich subsequently signed the impact fee extension bill, Balmoral and Maywood took the hit in court and it has knocked them out of racing.  

The uncertainty of their ability to cope with the financial crisis prompted the Illinois Racing Board to deny their request for a combined total of 104 nights of Friday and Saturday racing in 2016 and award Hawthorne a one-month winter meeting and a five-month summer meeting with Wednesday through Sunday programs.

Like Balmoral, Maywood was supposed to race until the end of December this year but Duke Johnston ended the meeting on Oct. 9.

“We earn about $20,000 a night in purses and we are paying $45,000,” he told the Racing Board. “I can’t keep doing that. We are trying to compete against casinos . . . and it’s killing us.”

Maywood was the first pari-mutuel harness track in Illinois, holding its inaugural meeting in 1946.

Balmoral entered harness racing on Dec. 2, 1968, embarking on a 66-night meeting, and has been operating ever since.

The track—located about 38 miles from downtown Chicago in the far south suburb of Crete—brought back the thoroughbreds in 1978 and was a combination standardbred/thoroughbred venue until 1991. Then, the Racing Board pulled the plug on the thoroughbred meeting in response to Arlington’s argument that conducting racing at Balmoral was contributing to short fields at the palatial track in Chicago’s northwest suburbs.

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As a thoroughbred track, pastoral Balmoral never achieved the grandiose expectations of its builder, Colonel Matt Winn of Churchill Downs fame, who joined with a group of prominent Illinois citizens to bring it into the racing world in the Roaring 20s bearing the name Lincoln Fields.

In a formal statement announcing the acquisition of 700 acres of land in Will County and his intention to build a $2 million track resplendent in 19th century Georgian architecture, Colonel Winn said:  “We want to provide the people of this city and state with racing of the very highest class, and I am confident that every leading turfman in America will come to Lincoln Fields to race for the rich prizes that we will offer.”

On opening day the track received rave reviews from the Chicago Tribune’s Harvey Woodruff, who wrote:  “At the conclusion of the card of seven races, 12,000 first day visitors were inclined to believe Lincoln Fields had opened a new era in Chicago turf history.

“Lincoln Fields is said to represent the heaviest financial (racing) investment in America and (it) presented the best class of horses Chicago has known for 20 years. Management claims it will be the greatest racetrack in America.”

While that prediction never came to fruition, Lincoln Fields did have some glory days before it was shut down in 1942 because of World War II travel restrictions.

Sun Beau, whose career earnings stood as a world record for almost a decade, ran in his next to last stakes race there in 1931 and 1941 Triple Crown winner Whirlaway won the first start of his career there the previous year. Two other Hall of Fame horses, Alsab and Myrtlewood, also made appearances as did Hall of Fame jockeys Eddie Arcaro, John Adams, Earl Sande and George Wolff.

With Lincoln Fields still dormant following the end of World War II, Edward Fleming headed the group that bought the track from Winn and Associates for $1,280,000 in 1947.  A Jan 30, 1952 fire that razed the grandstand delayed its reopening until 1954, the same year that William McCormack assumed the track presidency following the death of Fleming.

The return of racing for the first time in 12 years was short-lived. In 1955, a group headed by Arlington Park/Washington Park owner Ben Lindheimer purchased the property for $3.1 million, changed the track’s name from Lincoln Fields to Balmoral and transferred the thoroughbred meeting to Washington and later to Arlington.

Balmoral remained closed for more than a decade before William S. Miller and associates bought the track in 1967, remade it into a harness venue and reopened in December, 1968.

Ohio business tycoon and sports entrepreneur Edward J. De Bartolo acquired Balmoral in 1973 and the Johnston/Steinbrenner group bought it from him in 1987, outbidding Arlington Chairman Dick Duchossois at the 11th hour.

Duchossois got revenge, forcing Balmoral out of thoroughbred racing in 1991 and joining with former adversary Hawthorne to persuade the Racing Board to terminate harness racing at Balmoral at the conclusion of the 2015 meeting.