By Bob Kieckhefer
The site of old Sportsman’s Park in Illinois will complete a kind of weird full circle with plans to build a new headquarters for Wirtz Beverage Illinois on the suburban Chicago acreage.
Sportsmans’ was founded as a dog track in 1928 by Prohibition-era bootlegger Al Capone. Wirtz Beverage, owned by the same family that controls the Chicago Blackhawks, is a major Midwestern beverage distributor, handling a long list of top liquors, wines and beer.
The town of Cicero voted Jan. 11 to approve construction of the $70 million, 600,000-square foot facility on land just north of Hawthorne Race Course. The center will combine the existing scattered Wirtz headquarters, distribution and warehouse operations.
Although Sportsman’s started as a dog track, most of its life was devoted to horse racing. Laid out as a cozy "bull ring," the track’s patrons were practically on top of the racing action and Sportsman’s over the years acquired a fan-friendly reputation.
The marquee event, the Illinois Derby (gr. II), was won in 2002 by War Emblem, who went on to win the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). That also was the last year of operation for Sportsman’s, thanks in large measure to a poorly conceived conversion to accommodate auto racing during the off season.
The National Jockey Club, which conducted racing at Sportsman’s, essentially merged with Hawthorne’s racing entities. The Illinois Derby also moved to Hawthorne and the Sportsman’s auto racing grandstand was torn down in 2005. The other structures fell to the wrecking ball in 2009.
During its heyday, Sportsman’s also hosted top-rank harness racing.