Two Tracks, One Legacy: The Story of Washington Park

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Keeneland Library Thoroughbred Times Collection

This 1945 photo shows a crowd of approximately 45,000 packed into the track that featured one of the largest grandstands and racing ovals in the country.


Champion horses and horsemen frequented the famed Chicago track before its fiery demise


By J. Keeler Johnson

en Jones was a real horseman. Not many folks would have the patience and talent to gradually turn an unpredictable, frustrating colt like Whirlaway into a Triple Crown champion. Jones’ son Jimmy learned from the best. Between the two of them, they split training duties for Calumet Farm, conditioning an abundance of high-class horses from coast to coast. Having two trainers meant Calumet Farm could tackle multiple racing circuits at once, and no lucrative prize was safe from the stable’s famous devil’s red-and-blue silks. Keeping up with the Joneses was virtually impossible. How could anyone compete with a stable that cranked out champions and Hall of Fame inductees like clockwork? Every summer during the glory days of the 1940s, the Calumet Farm contingent would embark on a journey to Chicago to patronize the summer meet at Washington Park. Owned and managed by Ben Lindheimer, a dedicated promoter of high-class racing, Washington Park and its sister track, Arlington Park, comprised a summer circuit on par with any in the nation. Through the years, Chicago racing fans enjoyed a seemingly endless parade of unforgettable exploits from Calumet’s renowned Thoroughbreds. They watched Whirlaway make a mockery of the 1941 American Derby. The saw the filly Twilight Tear go four-for-four in the summer of 1944, beating males in the Classic and the Skokie Handicap. They cheered as Armed won back-to-back editions of the Washington Park Handicap, and they applauded when Coaltown won the Whirlaway Stakes. Yes, the Whirlaway, named for Coaltown’s own stablemate.

Bewitch (inside) defeats Citation (center) and Free America to complete a Calumet Farm sweep of the 1947 Washington Park Futurity; Bewitch and Citation were later inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

Keeneland Library Thoroughbred Times Collection

But the glorious domination of Calumet Farm reached its peak on August 16, 1947. In the six-furlong Washington Park Futurity, entrymates Bewitch, Citation and Free America gave Calumet Farm a 1-2-3 sweep of the $78,050 prize. It was an extraordinary achievement, made all the more so with the passing of time. Bewitch, a future Hall of Famer, would retire as North America’s richest filly or mare, and Citation would join his stablemate in the Hall of Fame after sweeping the Triple Crown and become the first horse to surpass $1 million in earnings. Another day, another stakes win for the Jones Boys. It’s safe to say the unstoppable Calumet Thoroughbreds were setting Washington Park on fire … figuratively, of course. The literal fire was still three decades away.

With the patronage of elite socialites, the original Washington Park was constructed at a cost of $150,000 and proceeded to embark on a two-decade run marked by incredible highs and frustrating lows. On June 7, 1884, three weeks before opening day, some 3,000 guests attended the unveiling of the ornate clubhouse. The following day, the Chicago Tribune described the scene: About 3 o’clock the carriages containing the guests began to arrive. Entering the grounds at the main gate the carriages drove to the porte-cochère of the club-house, where numerous grooms stood in readiness to take charge of the vehicles … Nothing had been omitted from the arrangements that could enhance the pleasure of the occasion. Upon the lawn that extends from the clubhouse to the track an orchestra was stationed …

Ask a racing historian to tell you the tale of Washington Park, and they’ll likely respond with a question of their own: “Which one?” Two different racetracks in the Chicago area have carried the Washington Park name with aplomb. The stories everyone knows so well— the ones packed with legendary horses and horsemen—took place at the second Washington Park and can be considered the sequel to a sprawling saga spanning nearly a century. The Washington Park Jockey Club was created in 1883, with hundreds of prominent Chicago citizens pooling resources to construct a grand new racetrack. The club’s first president was U.S. Army General Philip H. Sheridan, famous for his leadership during the Civil War and later for advocating for the creation of Yellowstone Park.

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This undated photo of the original version of Washington Park shows the clubhouse lawn.

From the club-house, out the grounds, and away along the drive as far as could be seen, came carriage after carriage … At one time the carriages arrived more rapidly than they could be disposed of, and quite a blockade was formed, the line of vehicles extending a quarter of a mile from the gates … The club-house is complete in its appointments, and received flattering commendation from all. The first object one sees upon coming within view of the park is a Gothic structure of three stories which presents an attractive pile of gables, dormer windows, balconies, and verandas. The structure is of the rural English style … The clubhouse was to be used exclusively for members of the Washington Park Jockey Club and members of the press. For everyday racing fans and bettors, there was the grandstand, measuring more than 500 feet in length. “It sits back from the track and upon an elevation of five and one-half feet,” wrote the Chicago Tribune. “Greensward slopes to the tracks, and from no position in the stand or from the lawn in front will not the horses be visible from any point on the track.” The annual highlight at Washington Park was the American Derby, a 1 ½-mile race for 3-year-olds that was arguably more prestigious in its heyday than the Kentucky Derby. Certainly it was the richer prize—when Spokane swept both races in 1889, he earned $15,400 for his triumph at Washington Park but just $4,880 for his victory in the Kentucky Derby. The American Derby was also the center of tremendous local celebrations on par with modern Kentucky Derby galas.

The race “was the signal for almost a solid week’s celebration in Chicago,” recalled the Chicago Tribune of June 8, 1930. “There is a history back of the old race almost as colorful as the history of the Kentucky Derby … In the days before the automobile, the airplane, and other modern inventions for travel, women racing patrons went to the American Derby at old Washington Park in horse drawn vehicles—carryalls, carriages, and tallyhos. White was the predominating color, and flowing skirts and parasols were the fad.” Some of the most extraordinary gatherings took place in 1893, when the World’s Columbian Exposition came to Chicago. In keeping with the extravagance, Washington Park pulled out all the stops to host one of the richest meets ever conducted, distributing nearly $350,000 over the course of 25 race days. Benefiting from the global audience in town for the exposition, “the thoroughbreds which raced at Washington Park in 1893 performed before the largest and most cosmopolitan crowds that ever attended any running meeting anywhere in the world,” wrote John Hervey in the Daily Racing Form of September 1, 1922. “The atmosphere which prevailed was one of champagne-like effervescence. Enthusiasm was unbounded. Excitement was infectious. It was like some tremendous pageant, some gigantic spectacle, arranged for the edification of the whole world, in which that world played the double part of actor and spectator.”

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American Derby Day, pictured here in 1893, was one of the era’s biggest racing events.

betting was declared legal in Illinois in 1924, efforts were begun immediately to provide Chicago with another luxury track.” Legalized pari-mutuel wagering soon followed, paving the way for a rebirth of horse racing in Illinois. Of course, rebuilding Washington Park in its original location was impossible. In the Daily Racing Form of September 1, 1922, Hervey explained: “Today, even the experienced eye of an old-time Chicagoan can detect … no trace which might betray the fact that a race track once existed there. The entire tract of what was once Washington Park is now a maze of city blocks and to and fro, where once the hoofbeats of [America’s] best thoroughbreds beat out their music before cheering multitudes, trolley cars, trucks, express wagons and every sort of vehicle of business and pleasure ply through the busy streets.” Instead, the new Washington Park was constructed in Homewood, a south Chicago suburb. Opening day was scheduled for July 3, 1926, coinciding with Independence Day weekend. What should have been a celebration of a grand new racetrack wound up turning into a political battleground. Even as excitement built for opening day, when 35,000 fans were expected to attend, it became widely known that state’s attorney Robert E. Crowe intended to raid the track with an army of deputies to “arrest anyone who patronized the cooperative betting booths,” according to Robertson. Considering Washington Park had the support of other government officials, it seemed the state was poised to do battle with itself over the legality of the track. In the end, Washington Park management secured an injunction allowing them to proceed as planned, and opening day went off without interruption. The inaugural race meet contained plenty of highlights. Kentucky Oaks winner Black Maria scored a memorable victory in the Illinois Oaks, and the American Derby (first at 1 1⁄2 miles, then shortened to 1 1⁄4 miles in 1928) returned in all

Courtesy Homewood Historical Society

The main attraction of the meet was a spectacularly rich edition of the American Derby, which carried a purse of $60,000, the second-highest amount awarded for any race in the 19th century. Money talks, and the rich purse attracted one of the strongest fields assembled for any race to that point in history. Indeed, The Baltimore Sun of June 26, 1893, declared the race to be “the greatest Derby ever run in this country.” Certainly the competition was stellar. Lookout, Plutus and Boundless, the top three finishers from the Kentucky Derby, were among 15 starters in the 1 ½-mile race. They were joined by future Hall of Fame inductee Clifford, accomplished juvenile Don Alonzo and English shipper Strathmore, to name just a few. But the American Derby didn’t take place without incident. There were no starting gates in 1893, and lining up the American Derby starters proved to be an agonizing exercise in patience and frustration. In The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America, author William H.P. Robertson notes the horses were at the post for an hour and 33 minutes, suffering a staggering 25 false starts before they were sent away in a clean line. “Fully 75,000 people, crushed and jammed into almost a compact mass, screamed with excitement at the conclusion of the event,” wrote The Baltimore Sun. Perhaps they were screaming for runaway winner Boundless, who earned $49,500 while clocking the track record time of 2:36 flat. Then again, maybe they were screaming with relief that the race had finally been run. Unfortunately, racing at old Washington Park was shortlived. Various factors, including waning popularity among socialites and anti-gambling campaigns in Illinois, pushed Washington Park in and out of business until it closed for good in 1905, when Illinois enacted a blanket ban on gambling. “Washington Park attempted to run [in 1904] on the revenue obtained simply from the gate receipts, and the races lasted just three days, causing a loss of several thousand dollars to the management,” wrote the St. Louis (Missouri) Post-Dispatch of July 30, 1905. “It was discovered that the people would not attend the races without being given a chance to lose their money.” For 20 years, the Washington Park name lingered as a mere memory. Then it came bursting back bigger and better than ever.

A NEW HOME IN HOMEWOOD It was probably inevitable that racing would eventually return to the Chicago area. During the Great Depression, racetracks popped up left and right as states realized they could tax wagering and generate revenue. But Washington Park was actually ahead of the game. As Robertson recounted in The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America, “when oral

This 1930s photograph of the second version of Washington Park shows the track’s unique toteboard.

THE CHAMPIONS ARRIVE The new Washington Park was a massive, elongated track unique by modern standards. It measured 1 1⁄8 miles in circumference rather than the typical mile, with the homestretch coming in at 1,531 feet long, dwarfing the 1,234 ½-foot stretch at Churchill Downs and trumping by two-thirds the 919-foot stretch at Del Mar. “Washington Park’s homestretch was humongous,” recalled jockey Steve Brooks in the book Citation: In a Class by Himself,

by Phil Georgeff. Brooks frequently rode for Calumet Farm and had plenty of experience at Washington Park. “The turns were a bit sharp and narrow, which favored speed. But that long home lane was the great equalizer—chocolate cake for late-runners.” A chute on the backstretch allowed mile races to be conducted around one turn, and this chute—coupled with the long straights—made Washington Park a very fast track. The summer of 1949 saw two American records fall there as Ky. Colonel clocked seven furlongs in 1:21 2⁄5 and Coaltown blazed a mile in 1:34 flat. Fast horses were also a factor, and Washington Park made every effort to attract the best. Illinois Governor Henry Horner was eager to see racing grow, and in 1938 wagering takeout was increased from 6.5 percent to 7.5 percent to fund higher purses. With more revenue on the table, Lindheimer and Gregory set their sights on challenging historic Saratoga as “the summer place to be” for elite equines. The Chicago Tribune of November 30, 1939, recounted a meeting of the Illinois racing commission at which Lindheimer promised to offer $340,000 in purses, far exceeding the $268,000 awarded by Saratoga that year. Leading the newly enhanced stakes schedule was the American Derby, returning to the agenda following a twoyear hiatus. Mioland, racing for Charles Howard and Tom Smith of Seabiscuit fame, rolled to victory in 1940 and earned a hefty $44,900. The value would only rise from there— throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the American Derby purse was comparable to that of the Preakness and Belmont stakes.

Keeneland Library Thoroughbred Times Collection


Courtesy H



its history-making glory with a purse of $106,000, the highest offered to that date for any race in North America. Boot to Boot, a classy colt owned by Colonel E.R. Bradley, beat Display (later to retire as the “Iron Horse” for racing 103 times over six seasons) and Black Maria to claim the $89,000 winner’s prize. But while the racing progressed smoothly, Washington Park’s troubles weren’t over. It turned out the track lacked the financial wherewithal to afford such lavish prizes. With daily purse distribution averaging $13,390, among the highest payouts in the country, the track’s finances quickly entered the red. “Washington Park lost money on the meeting,” noted Robertson, “and al though it was eventually made good, the fabulous winner’s This 1930 program lists Matt Winn as the track’s president; he is better known check for the Ameri for his role at Churchill Downs in mak- can Derby bounced on ing the Kentucky Derby an iconic race. first presentation.” In the end, it was Matt Winn—fabled savior of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby—who stepped in to save Washington Park. As recounted by Robertson, “Winn organized a syndicate which purchased Washington Park and put it on a sounder financial basis.” Winn didn’t stay involved for long, selling the facility in 1935 to Walter Gregory and Benjamin Lindheimer, but his brief participation gave Washington Park the boost it needed to survive its formative years. With Lindheimer running the show, Washington Park would rise to heights never previously scaled by Illinois racing.

The field for the 1945 Washington Park Handicap passed the grandstand for the first time before Busher and Johnny Longden prevail. Other winners of the race, which was later contested at Arlington Park, included Armed, Coaltown, Swaps, Round Table, Dr. Fager and Spectacular Bid.

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Native Dancer, whose only career defeat from 22 starts came in the 1953 Kentucky Derby, won the American Derby under Eddie Arcaro later that year in his final start as a 3-year-old.

Even more significant, the American Derby was three to five times richer than the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, making it a coveted summer target for the season’s best classic runners. Case in point? The list of winners became a who’s who of sophomore champions. Cavalcade (1934), Whirlaway (1941), Citation (1948), Ponder (1949) and Swaps (1955) all pulled off the Kentucky Derby/American Derby double, while Alsab (1942), Fighting Step (1945), Hill Prince (1950) and Native Dancer (1953) all claimed the American Derby during their championship seasons. Calumet Farm’s Ponder was particularly impressive in 1949. Benefiting from a fast pace set by the previously mentioned record-setter Ky. Colonel, Ponder came rolling from off the pace under Steve Brooks to win by 2 ¼ lengths in 2:00 2⁄5, the fastest mile-and-a-quarter ever run by a 3-year-old to that point in time. Ponder’s victory gave Calumet Farm three straight wins in the American Derby, following Fervent in 1947 and Citation in 1948. Chicago racing fans appreciated the opportunity to see top-class horses in action, betting with both fists on shortpriced favorites while cheering loudly for the equine stars.

“It sometimes happens that a great baseball team, football team, or racing stable is so much better than its opposition that the fans get bored watching them win … The opposite is true about Warren Wright’s Calumet Farm [Thoroughbreds],” wrote Arch Ward in the Chicago Tribune of August 27, 1949. “Jimmy Jones trains them and Steve Brooks rides them in a way that makes a great show … Just when you think they’re so far behind that they’re running in the next race, they begin drives that would bring anyone up out of his chair … Even when fans feel sure that the Calumets are going to get there, they can’t help but wonder how they’re going to make up all that ground.” Ward would reiterate the point in 1955 when Calumet sent Mark-Ye-Well for a spring assignment in the Balmoral Turf Handicap. “For the first time in many moons a Calumet Farm [Thoroughbred] has come into town for a big race without the [photographers] lining up three deep and the odds dropping to 3 to 5,” he wrote in the June 11 Chicago Tribune. “Folks who play the horses just aren’t used to Calumet’s colors showing hereabouts in the spring.” Between 1941 and 1958, Horses of the Year Whirlaway (1941, 1942), Count Fleet (1943), Twilight Tear (1944),

Busher (1945), Armed (1947), Citation (1948), Hill Prince (1950), Native Dancer (1952, 1954), Nashua (1955), Swaps (1956) and Round Table (1958) all competed at Washington Park, usually during their championship seasons. Four of those—Whirlaway, Twilight Tear, Armed and Citation—were, of course, Calumet runners. The takeaway? If you wanted to see the best horses in America during the 1940s and 1950s, you just needed to spend your summer at Washington Park. At one time or another, virtually all the great champions would stop by for a visit.

“Grass racing became quite popular at the two Chicago tracks, both for the fans and the horsemen,” wrote William Boniface in Baltimore’s The Evening Sun of April 19, 1958. “Trainers found that some of their horses improved when racing on the softer surface.” Pursuing the trend wholeheartedly, Washington Park turned the American Derby into a 1 3⁄16-mile grass race in 1955. Nowadays, such a move would be roughly equivalent to switching Monmouth Park’s prestigious Haskell Invitational to turf, though at the time horsemen harbored no fear of racing highclass dirt horses on grass, and the quality of the American Derby hardly suffered. CLASS ON THE GRASS To prove the point, the first running on grass saw Kentucky Participation from Calumet Farm and the Jones Boys Derby winner Swaps start as the 1-5 favorite. Any concerns waned during the 1950s, coinciding with the decline of the bettors might have had regarding Swaps’ proclivity for grass Calumet stable as a whole. This shift could have dealt a blow to were eliminated when the speedy colt took to the Washington Washington Park’s national prominence, but two interrelated Park turf course for a five-furlong workout two days before the factors combined to keep the facility in the spotlight. One was race. He rocketed the distance in :57 2⁄5, eclipsing the North the ongoing success of the American Derby. The other was the American grass record by two seconds, and he proceeded to rising popularity of turf racing. dominate the American Derby in the course-record time of The turf course at Washington Park was state-of-the- 1:54 3⁄5, equaling the American record. art; together with Arlington Park, which shared common Before the race, “[jockey] Bill Shoemaker entertained the ownership and management, the two tracks were the first in crowd by riding Swaps along the outer rail in the post parade North America to install banked turns. At a time when grass and permitting fans to stroke the face and neck of the wellracing in North America was only just gaining a foothold, mannered colt,” wrote Joe Hirsch in The First Century: Daily Washington Park was quick to embrace its growing popularity. Racing Form Chronicles 100 Years of Thoroughbred Racing. The surface switch was less lucrative for the connections of 1956 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Needles. The acclaimed Florida-bred colt was favored to win the American Derby, and probably would have done so on dirt, but the unfamiliar footing—made soft and slippery by heavy rain and a thunderstorm— conspired to leave Needles in fifth place behind local star Swoon’s Son. Swoon’s Son was hardly a fluke, for he retired with no fewer than 10 Washington Park stakes victories to his credit, but the defeat of Needles surely left some folks wondering why a historic race like the American Derby was being conducted over a new-fangled racing surface. Fortunately for the reputation of the American Derby, a shining knight came to the rescue. Within racing circles, the exploits of Round Table are just as legendary as tales of King Arthur and his knights among the broader population. Voted Horse of the Keeneland Library Year in 1958, Round Table won many of Thoroughbred Times Collection racing’s most prestigious handicaps on dirt, but he was a nearly unstoppable beast on grass, winning the turf championship title While turf racing is both common and popular today, it was still relatively new to American horses and horsemen in the mid-20th century. from 1957 to 1959. He would also become

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Nashua and Eddie Arcaro lead Swaps and Bill Shoemaker in the famous 1955 match race.

renowned for his ability to carry high weights and battle his way to victory. Round Table was especially formidable at Washington Park, where he compiled a near-perfect seven-for-eight record. In the 1957 American Derby he led all the way to score by four effortless lengths over Kentucky Derby winner Iron Liege. John McEvoy, author of Round Table: Thoroughbreds Legends, recounts how longtime Chicago track executive William Thayer was in attendance for Round Table’s trouncing of the American Derby. “I saw him many times after that,” Thayer said, “and believe me, there was no better grass horse than Round Table. He could carry the grandstand and win.”

THE MATCH RACE There’s a reason why folks called Eddie Arcaro “the Master.” The acclaimed jockey of Triple Crown winners Whirlaway and Citation was a 39-year-old veteran when he arrived at Washington Park to ride in the greatest race the Chicago track ever held—a highly anticipated and widely publicized $100,000 match race between 1955 Kentucky Derby winner Swaps and Preakness/Belmont winner Nashua, organized through the patience and perseverance of Lindheimer. Arcaro, scheduled to ride the stoutly bred Nashua, had done his homework to prepare the winning strategy. Legendary trainer “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons had conditioned Nashua with fast workouts to build his speed, and Arcaro intended to commit Nashua to a front-running gambit. Match races are often won by whichever horse can secure the early advantage,

and after allowing Swaps to gain an uncontested lead in the Kentucky Derby—which possibly contributed to Nashua’s surprising runner-up effort—Arcaro wasn’t going to make the same mistake again. But Arcaro’s preparations didn’t stop there. Two days before the August 31 match race, the skies opened up in Chicago, dumping 2 ½ inches of rain on Washington Park. The track would dry to some extent by post time, but it wouldn’t be fast, and Arcaro suspected it might be uneven. So before he legged up for the ride of his life, Arcaro decided to get up close and personal with the racing surface that would hold the attention of 35,262 racing fans plus countless more watching and listening via television and radio broadcasts. “Arcaro had studied the track and noted a path that seemed better than others,” wrote Edward L. Bowen in Nashua: Thoroughbred Legends. “It was a bit to the right of the inside post position, at least at the break.” Ultimately, the match race between Nashua and Swaps would become muddled by uncertainties surrounding the apparent unsoundness of Swaps, who was battling a hoof issue possibly aggravated by the muddy track. Some argue the results were inconclusive, but no one ever debated the flawless ride executed by Arcaro. In the days before the match race, Arcaro openly pondered his potential race strategy with the media. While he praised Nashua’s ability to break quickly from the starting gate, Arcaro indicated he wouldn’t necessarily pursue the early advantage. “You can’t let the other horse steal a big lead,” Arcaro said in

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TRANSITION TO TROTTERS AND THE SEVENTIES’ STRUGGLES As the 1960s dawned, changes were in the air at Washington Park. Ben Lindheimer, a brilliant owner and manager for a quarter of a century, passed away in 1960. His daughter, Marjorie “Marje” Lindheimer Everett, assumed command of both Washington Park and Arlington Park, having previously worked alongside her father.

Courtesy Homewood Historical Society

Under Everett’s management, Washington Park changed its course. Quite literally. In 1962, Washington Park transitioned from a Thoroughbred track to a facility for harness racing. The 1 1⁄8-mile oval was shortened to a mile, and a large investment was made installing electric lights to facilitate night racing. “Washington Park this fall will be the meeting ground of harness racing’s champions,” remarked N. Orrin Baker, director of racing for the Washington Park Trotting Association, in the Chicago Tribune of June 10, 1962. “They will compete under the truest racing conditions possible, at a plant which may have its equal but certainly no peer among the nation’s leading harness tracks.” Thoroughbred racing at Washington Park didn’t dry up immediately. Plans called for the track to offer both types of racing, and in 1963, future champion handicap The outcome of the match race was decisive, with Nashua beating Swaps by 6 ½ lengths. mare Old Hat rolled to a decisive victory in the Four Winds Stakes, becoming the last an article by Harry Grayson published in The Miami News of champion Thoroughbred to compete at Washington Park. August 28, 1955. “But I’m not going to whip Nashua in an But the Thoroughbred stakes program was gutted, with effort to have him keep pace with Swaps in the early going.” historic fixtures transferred to Arlington Park. Before long, Perhaps Arcaro changed his mind when the rains came Washington Park’s Thoroughbred dates were also shifted to and the importance of securing the best lane became Arlington, consolidating the meets and allowing Washington paramount. Or perhaps Arcaro had been trying to fool his Park to move full-steam ahead with harness racing. opponents. In any case, when the starting gates opened at The nail in the coffin, at least for a time, came in 1964 4:18 p.m. local time, Arcaro wisely threw his publicly stated when the track’s Thoroughbred paddock area was demolished strategy out the window. to make room for a parking lot. “The chute and chute fence “Crashing his whip and his vocal cords in unison, the Master also have been removed,” wrote James Segreti in the Chicago reverted to being an apprentice on a half-mile gyp track,” wrote Bowen. Shouting encouragement to Nashua and urging him to accelerate, Arcaro convinced the great colt to break like a rocket and out-sprint Swaps in the battle for early supremacy. From there, Arcaro quickly guided Nashua to the best footing, and the outcome became a formality. Swaps tried to stay in touch, but Nashua—carving out fast fractions over the tiring track—burned out his pursuer and pulled away down the stretch to win by 6 ½ lengths. Maybe Swaps wasn’t fit and ready for a peak run against a top-class horse like Nashua. But the Master’s perfect ride undoubtedly sealed the outcome.

Standardbred racing came to Washington Park in the 1960s, but it proved less popular than Thoroughbred racing.

Winter racing succeeds at many tracks today because of simulcasting, but it did not pay off in 1970s Chicago.

Courtesy Homewood Historical Society

Tribune of May 10, 1964, “and tons of top soil or ‘cushion’ for [Thoroughbreds] have been hauled to Arlington Park. Who said there still was a possibility that runners would return to the Homewood mile plant?” Jockeys and trainers like Eddie Arcaro and Ben Jones were replaced in the spotlight by acclaimed harness drivers. Bob Farrington, a member of the Harness Racing Museum’s Hall of Fame, was the leading driver at Washington Park on six occasions between 1964 and 1970. Farrington made history in 1964 when he became the first driver to win more than 300 races in a single year, and 140 of those triumphs came at Washington Park. Occasionally, Thoroughbreds did return to the Homewood oval. A 36-day spring meet was held at Washington Park in 1970, but attendance was poor and wagering totals disappointing, turning the meet into a one-time experiment. There were other changes afoot. Racing dates shifted frequently throughout the 1970s as the Illinois Racing Board tried to identify the most profitable schedule for the state’s many Thoroughbred and harness racing tracks. Sometimes Washington Park would hold two cards in a single day—one in the afternoon, one in the evening—with a total of 20 races on the agenda. Ownership and management interests shifted just as often as racing dates. A merger between Marje Everett’s Chicago Thoroughbred Enterprises and Gulf and Western Industries shifted control of Arlington and Washington parks out of Everett’s hands, and in 1970, Everett stepped down from her position as managing director of both tracks. Changes continued when Madison Square Garden Corp., based in New York, acquired Chicago Thoroughbred Enterprises. The dust had barely settled before a court ruled the new ownership group owed $5.6 million in back taxes stemming from the incorrect taxation of Arlington and Washington parks as separate subsidiary businesses between 1966 and 1971. In addition, the Illinois Racing Board called

for capital improvements across all of Illinois’ racetracks, with the backstretch facilities at Washington Park requiring particular attention. It seemed Washington Park was under fire from all directions. As it turned out, the track’s days would be numbered due to fire of a different kind.

THE END OF THE LINE Jockey Dave Shepherd failed to reach the Washington Park winner’s circle on Saturday, February 5, 1977. The upand-coming 19-year-old had won seven races in January at Washington Park, making him one of the top apprentice jockeys on the circuit, but lately his luck had been as cold as the winter weather in Chicago. With a losing streak of 40 races and counting, Shepherd could only shrug and look forward to Sunday. Another day would bring another nine races, and Shepherd was scheduled to ride six appealing mounts, including morning line favorite Glad’s Jewell in the opener. Sadly, those Sunday races would never be run. Winter racing at Washington Park was an experiment sadly destined for failure. On September 30, 1976, the Illinois Racing Board took a bold new step and authorized Thoroughbred racing at Washington Park between January 1 and March 6, 1977. With the goal of generating more revenue, the track would race every day except Tuesdays, with first post time on weekdays taking place at 3:00 p.m. The majority of the cards would be held at night under the lights, to accommodate workers looking for an evening of entertainment. “Research shows there are at least 26,000 workers in the area who get off factory shifts at 2:30 to 3 p.m., all within 15 miles of Washington Park,” noted track president Joseph Joyce in the Chicago Tribune of December 29, 1976. “This will give them an opportunity to make the races.”

Once the fire at Washington Park started, little could be done to stop it.

Courtesy Homewood Historical Society

Of course, racing during the dreadfully cold Chicago winters presented new challenges. An expert trackman from Canada was brought in to care for the racing surface, since none of the Illinois regulars had experience maintaining Thoroughbred racetracks during the winter. Jockeys bundled up heavily to withstand the cold; The (Chicago) Daily Herald noted they were “dressed as [mummies] with layers of clothes, ski masks, goggles, and finally racing silks,” enduring “the minus-60 degree wind chill factors on the back of a galloping thoroughbred.” Attendance was modest and wagering fell short of expectations, but despite the challenges, racing went on. When the races concluded on February 5, nearly 6,500 racegoers funneled out of the grandstand and departed for the evening. Most of the track employees followed; only one guard and a switchboard operator stayed behind. Then the fire broke out. Track officials had long been aware that Washington Park was a fire hazard. With its largely wooden grandstand, there was plenty of material to fuel a massive blaze. Millions of dollars had already been invested in protective measures throughout the facility, but planned sprinklers and smoke alarms had not yet been installed. By the time firefighters were alerted to the blaze, it was too late. Fast and furious, flames swept through Washington Park’s grandstand. The five-story wooden structure burned quickly on a windy winter night. Firefighters fought hard to confine the blaze and prevent it from spreading to the stable area, where

1,200 horses were endangered. The Daily Leader in Pontiac, Illinois, noted on February 7 that three firefighters were treated for frostbite after the fire was extinguished, and while the barns were saved, the grandstand was completely destroyed. “There had been some inroads made in the fireproofing plans, but not enough in time,” Homewood Fire Chief Joseph Klauk told The Daily Herald. “If [sprinklers] and smoke

Courtesy Homewood Historical Society

The fire destroyed the entire grandstand and brought an end to racing forever at Washington Park.

Courtesy Homewood Historical Society

Horses training at Washington Park in 1963.

detection devices had been installed we would have had earlier notification and a good chance to extinguish the fire before it did much damage.” And the damages—monetarily speaking—were substantial. No injuries were reported, but William L. Masterson, executive secretary of the Illinois Racing Board, estimated $15 million in losses. The fire “destroyed computers, ticket machines and saddles,” according to The San Bernardino County Sun. Shepherd was among the jockeys to lose belongings in the blaze. “Nobody knows what happened but it was burned to the ground within an hour,” he told Joe O’Day in the February 24 New York Daily News. “Most of the jocks lost everything. I know I lost $2,000 in tack.” “It burned pretty fast, being an old structure without fire stops or walls,” agreed Klauk in The Daily Leader. The fire brought a swift end to Illinois’ winter racing season and—though no one knew it at the time—all racing at Washington Park. Two development plans for the property were outlined in 1978, including one that would have seen the racetrack rebuilt, but nothing came of them. “A source close to the situation says that Madison Square Garden sees little chance for rebuilding Washington Park,” wrote Mike Kiley in the Chicago Tribune of April 20, 1978. “The corporation believes that such an action is not financially worthwhile.” Homewood completed the purchase of the Washington Park property in 1992, and the area was redeveloped. Just like

old Washington Park before it, evidence of the once-grand track quickly disappeared as streets, buildings—progress— burst forth. Stroll down Maple Avenue in Homewood and you’ll tread the ground where Whirlaway and Citation once galloped. Where Swaps and Nashua dueled. Where Ben Jones, Jimmy Jones, Eddie Arcaro, Steve Brooks and so many others were frequent visitors to the winner’s circle. “And to one unfamiliar with the past, it would be difficult to imagine that … one of America’s premier racing plants there flourished.” John Hervey was writing of old Washington Park. But his sentiment remains applicable across generations. H J. Keeler Johnson is a writer, videographer and horse racing enthusiast who contributes to BloodHorse, America’s Best Racing, BetAmerica, TwinSpires and Horse Racing Nation. A passionate fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in North America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. Editor’s Note: American Racehorse thanks the Keeneland Library ( for providing many of the wonderful photographs for this article, as well as for many previous historical articles in this publication. Thanks also go to the Homewood Historical Society (homewoodhistoricalsociety. com) for additional photos. The Society runs a museum in Homewood that includes memorabilia from Washington Park.

Keeneland Library Thoroughbred Times Collection

An undated photo of people setting off for a day at the races at old Washington Park.

Keeneland Library Thoroughbred Times Collection

The old Washington Park opened in 1884, long before the first Ford Model T automobile was produced in 1908.

Keeneland Library Thoroughbred Times Collection

Crowds packed the inside rail to watch the races at old Washington Park from the infield.

Courtesy Homewood Historical Society

Citation (center) only lost once in nine starts as a 2-year-old, running second to stablemate Bewitch (on rail) in the 1947 Washington Park Futurity.

Courtesy Homewood Historical Society

This 1955 photo shows part of the toteboard and one of the picturesque infield ponds.

Courtesy Homewood Historical Society

Nashua is pictured in preparation for his 1955 match race against Swaps, which he won by daylight.

Courtesy Homewood Historical Society

The enormity of the Washington Park grandstand, clubhouse and track surfaces can be seen in this 1974 photo.

Courtesy Homewood Historical Society

And the enormity of the devastating fire can be seen in this 1978 photo with the grandstand and clubhouse in ruins.

Courtesy Homewood Historical Society

Fire had long been considered a threat to the track.

Courtesy Homewood Historical Society

Washington Park, pictured in the 1930s, not only had an elongated grandstand and stretch run, but it also featured one of the tallest towers of any track, presumably containing the announcer, stewards and photo finish equipment.

Courtesy Homewood Historical Society

The now defunct Washington Park Airport, located near the track, offered shuttle service from the airfield to the races for horsemen and fans arriving by plane. The track was also accessible by train.

Courtesy Homewood Historical Society

A historical marker is now all that remains of Washington Park.

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