CHICAGO — Horse racing is in the peak of its season, with the Kentucky Derby earlier this month in Louisville and the Preakness held over the weekend in Baltimore.
But Chicago used to be at the center of the horse racing world, when it was home to race tracks, in Garfield Park, Washington Park, Brighton Park and elsewhere.
According to Encyclopedia of Chicago, in the 1930s the city had six race tracks, more than any other city, and Chicago residents first started watching the sport in the early 1830s.
Early Chicago race tracks include the Garden City track near 26th and Indiana in 1854 and one in Brighton Park in 1855. Nine years later, Dexter Park at 42nd and Halsted debuted.
The crown jewel was likely the Washington Park Race Track, which opened in 1883 and held huge races like the 1893 Derby, which awarded $50,000 to the winner, Boundless. According to Encyclopedia of Chicago, at the time it was the second richest race in 19th-Century America.
Mired In Controversy
In 1886, Garfield Park built a Driving Park Association track at the south end of the park, according to Russell Lewis of the Chicago History Museum. Two race tracks were built along with grandstands at some point, and racing commenced in Garfield Park on July 20, 1891.
Even before the race track opened, it was mired in controversy, Lewis said. Local residents objected to having the sports venue in a residential neighborhood. They claimed it would attract a lower class of citizens, create noisy disturbances and congestion, and lower property values, Lewis said.
Most importantly, Lewis said, they condemned the West Park Commissioners for leasing part of the park for a “Gentleman’s Driving Park.” They complained that the race track really just a way to promote betting and gambling, Lewis said.
As Good As New York
On May 20, 1891, Edward Corrigan opened Hawthorne Park on a 119-acre site just outside the city limits, offering a five-race card to 6,000 spectators. According to the Thoroughbred Record, “Chicago racing equaled that of New York and everything else in the country for the quality of its [organized races] and the grade of horses, which they attracted.”
Corrigan and Hawthorne Park saw the Garfield Park Club and its racetrack, located east of Hawthorne Park, as its main rival, and a turf war ensued over who would have the best horses, the most prize money and the largest crowds, Lewis said.
The Garfield Park Club continued operating despite these objections. According to the July 26, 1891 Tribune: “Photographic records will be kept of all finishes at the Garfield Park course. This is a novelty in racing work. …The club will have records that can never be questioned, as the camera never lies.”
But beginning in 1892, a number of legal actions were taken to try to shut down the race track in Garfield Park, primarily because of the overt gambling taking place, Lewis said. Neighbors, the West Side Park Commissioners, and elected officials each developed different strategies to close the operation.
In July 1892, Ald. John Cooke offered a resolution to the City Council to no longer issue a license or permit to the Garfield Park club for horse racing on the West Side of Chicago. The Garfield Park Club argued that pool selling (bets collected often in other states) was not gambling and that it was necessary to encourage the breeders to improve their horses; the large premiums offered to the owners and breeders was necessary and they could only be raised by betting.
Police Raid Tracks
Later than month, the police raided Garfield Park and arrested people engaged in gambling and stopped racing, Lewis said. The conflict between the operators and the police reached a breaking point in September. On Sept. 2 police in patrol wagons descended on the track to arrest jockeys, bookmakers, bettors and managers.
Thirty-three people were arrested. Three days later, on Sept. 5, 1891, 500 police officers forced entrance to the park and arrested 125 people for gambling. The next day, two police officers and a horse owner were killed as tempers flared, Lewis said.
The track was closed by “reform mayor Hempstead Washburne” in 1892, according to Encyclopedia of Chicago.
‘Higher Class’ In Washington Park
The attention given to Garfield also spread to other tracks, Lewis said. Hawthorne was subject to raids. Many people felt if Garfield did not get a license then Washington Park should not get one either. But people recognized that Washington Park attracted “higher-class” people, and it seemed that gambling was not as extensive, most likely due to the fact that Washington Park had a longer tenure and tradition that reflected more of a sporting culture than a gambling one.
Washington Park existed from 1884-1977 and was in Woodlawn before moving to suburban Homewood.
Horse racing was banned in Illinois in 1905. In 1927 a bill legalizing perimutal racing was passed by the Illinois Legislature, according to Encyclopedia of Chicago.