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Backhoes and wrecking balls are nibbling away at the Sportsman’s Park grandstand. On Wednesday the demolition crew was at work in the neighborhood of the old $50 window. It’s only the physical destruction of a racetrack that was ruined years ago by one of the worst business decisions in Chicago sports history.
Charles Bidwill III, the nitwit scion of the same family that has mismanaged the NFL’s Cardinals for the last 75 years, thought it would be a good idea to convert Sportsman’s to a combination horse racing/auto racing facility. He spent $60 million to lay down an asphalt racetrack and built an enormous grandstand for the auto racing crowd.
Horseplayers hated it. Once a cozy seven-eights of a mile oval, Sportsman’s suddenly looked like a prison yard. The first year barbed wire blocked the view of the track. The horses were running on a cushion of dirt spread over the auto racing surface, which caused leg-snapping breakdowns. In Sportsman’s final season, the spring of 2002, track superintendents sometime spent an hour trying to get the surface ready before calling off the races. One Saturday I watched a horse belly-flop in the stretch, then heard a fuming trainer declare, “That’s it. We’re scratching.” The rest of the day’s races were cancelled.
On that hard track frontrunners were winning almost all the races. Which was why I didn’t think much of War Emblem, who jogged to victory in the Illinois Derby. A few weeks later, War Emblem won the Kentucky Derby at 20-1. It was a final moment of glory in Sportsman’s end-of-the-line year.
Of Chicago’s three racetracks, Sportsman’s best exemplified horse racing’s seedy glamour. It was started as a dog track by Al Capone, who used to fix the races by feeding greasy hamburgers to every greyhound but the one he planned to bet on. Sportsman’s sometimes held boxing matches between the races, up on the third floor. I used to see Moose Skowron in the grandstand, wearing a jacket advertising his after-the-races tavern, Call Me Moose. Racetrack Rosie, the veteran stripper known for her outlandish Derby Day hats, had her own day at Sportsman’s. The track even put her picture on the program cover. My first gambling mentor, Johnny Goritz, taught me to read a horse’s body language at Sportsman’s. And I’ll never forget watching a losing gambler race through the bleachers after a bad beat, wailing “I’ve never had any luck! Not once in 55 years!” Sportsman’s was the mingled stench of cigarette smoke, horse manure and the newsprint of a fresh Daily Racing Form. But give Sportsman’s some credit for class: it had the best food of any sporting venue in town. Can you get a salmon-and-fettucine blue plate special at the United Center?
The town of Cicero bought Sportsman’s Park for $18 million in 2003. The National Jockey Club, the entity that owned the track, merged with Hawthorne, which now holds Chicago’s spring thoroughbred meet. Once it’s demolished, Sportsman’s will become a shopping center.
Photo by Katherine of Chicago