Well sure, it wasn't the most beautiful racetrack in the world, down in the heart of industrial Cicero, Illinois, with the smokestacks and the tank farms in the background, and the planes from Midway thundering overhead.
And sure, it was kinda small, and low, and dark.
And sure, it kinda looked like the superstructure of an aircraft carrier from the backside.
And sure, the infield and track was no thing of great beauty, with the odd little farm where new generations of Canadian geese grew up every Spring, and the view of the barns and Hawthorne in the background, and the little bush off the left end of the toteboard trimmed so oddly we could only refer to it as the Nipple Bush.
And just as sure, the indoor paddock off the grandstand end was no beauty contest winner, and the apron was narrow, and the clubhouse was low and too far past the finish line.
But it was home, and did have its points. This is where I first learned the difference between handicapping and betting on horses. This where I experienced the thrill of my first win as a horse owner. This is where I got my first taste of real racetrack characters, like Old Mr. Sandals, may he rest in peace. And this is where we looked forward to the new racing year in Chicago, each and every year, and sitting in those cold outdoor seats overlooking the track across from the Nipple Bush to witness the return of live racing.
In 1997 Sportsman's had proudly celebrated their 65th anniversary, and the 1998 season started off on many positive notes. Large daily purse distributions, guaranteed throughout the meet. The Park and the horsemen working together to try some innovative new takeout reduction experiments to lure people out to the track. Lots of special little events on racing days, including our favorites, the strolling mariachis.
But shortly after the meet began, Sportsman's management confirmed the rumors that had been circulating on the Chicago backside since the previous summer at AP: Sportsman's would be razed and rebuilt as an auto racing track, with a seasonal horse racing track on the inside. To be constructed over the top of the asphalt pit area of the car track. Not to be completed until Labor Day, 1999. Another jolt for the Chicago horse racing circuit, still struggling with the closure of Arlington just five months earlier. Some of the horsemen said enough's enough, and announced plans to move their barns elsewhere, at least during the winters.
Part of the long range plan was that the current Spt barns would be demolished, barns that are used during the Hawthorne meet, and replacement barns would be built across Laramie Avenue, requiring a long tunnel or something to get them from one side of Laramie to the other. The horsemen were not pleased with this idea, either. But they were assured this wouldn't happen right away, and additionally that training would be still be able to go on at Sportsman's all during the HAW meet, without interruption.
But shortly before the end of the Spt meet it was announced that the Spt track would be torn up immediately after the Spt meet, and training would not be possible. The horsemen were incensed, as this meant all training had to take place on the HAW main track, and the gap area leading from the Spt barns would be heavily overloaded. What had been a very strong relationship between Spt management and the horsemen at the beginning of the meet was strained, to say the least.
We had one last shining moment, though, as Yarrow Brae took an exciting 1998 Illinois Derby on a beautiful Spring Day. Sadly, IMHO, the last Illinois Derby we'll ever see run at Sportsman's Park, as rumors were starting to make the rounds that there never would be a new horse track at Sportsman's, and that the National Jockey Club would simply lease Hawthorne to run the Spt meet dates.
For the last weekend at Sportsman's, a big Billy Ray Cyrus concert and fireworks show was planned at Sportsman's. The horsemen went to court to stop the fireworks show, as the barns are right up against the infield, and the sky bombs would be going off right over the horses' heads. The fireworks show was cancelled by order of the judge. A large stage was constructed for the concert, right next to the track in front of the toteboard. On what was to be the last day of racing, several horses shied from the stage during morning workouts and exercise riders were injured. The jockeys voted not to run the final day's card. A nasty shouting match reportedly ensued between Sportsman's management and the local head of the Jockey's Guild, but it was over. The final season at Sportsman's Park went out, not with a bang, but with a whimper.
And throughout the summer Hawthorne meet we watched from the upper levels as Sportsman's Park was slowly torn up, starting with the draining of the little pond and the levelling of the little farm, continuing with the track being torn out, and then on to the grandstand being gutted.
Farewell, old friend.
But thanks for all the good years, Mr. Bidwell. It was a great place while we had it.