Sport of Sporstman's

By John McEvoy
So, it's goodbye to Chicago's "bull ring." After 70 years, Sportsman's Park is finished as a blue-collar, ethnically integrated site of Thoroughbred racing, a track whose configuration changed from a half-miler (1932), to a five-furlong oval (1956), to a seven-furlong strip (1992) with the longest stretch (1,436 feet) in America.

In 1999 came the $200-million conversion of the plant to a combination horse and auto-racing center, the latter sport conducted during the summers when the trotters used to hold sway. This increased seating capacity from a cozy 12,000 to a capacious 70,000.

But putting CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) before the horses proved to be an aesthetic and financial mistake. It led, finally, to the recently announced lease arrangement that will find Sportsman's running whatever meetings it is granted in the future at neighboring Hawthorne. The 74-acre Sportsman's site, which in the 1920s was home to a quarter-mile dog track reputedly controlled by gangster Al Capone, will be offered for sale.

Some in the Chicago racing community will not lament Sportsman's passing. Many others of us will. Before auto racing arrived to throw a wrench into the machinery, Sportsman's was well-managed, economical, accessible--and successful.

The red brick facility on Cicero Avenue for years kicked off the Chicago Thoroughbred season, an annual cause of celebration. Before 1999, fans sat in stands located closer to the racing action than at any track in the country. This physical intimacy led to an appreciation of the equine athletes and their riders as fields spiraled into the super-tight first turn of the headlong sprint events that made up the bulk of the cards. Sounds of pounding hooves and the shouts of the jocks were as tangible as the aroma of grilled Polish sausages that wafted from the concession stands.

For years, neighborhood kids peered through the Laramie Avenue fence at the free afternoon entertainment. Going on behind them were three-card monte games conducted on blankets on the sidewalk, across the street from saloons where bookmakers took phone calls before heading across Laramie to dump their "lay off" money. It was a gritty, realistic, and very colorful urban sporting scene.

A 16-year-old apprentice named Eddie Arcaro won his first career riding title at Sportsman's in 1932. Such other "name" jockeys as Johnny Longden, Job Dean Jessop, R.L. Baird, Pat Day, and Larry Snyder later led the standings, but the most popular of all was Cicero native Tony Skoronski, i.e., "Mr. Sportsman's Park." This "neighborhood guy" won more than 800 races at Sportsman's in front of fans with whom he had a serious love-hate relationship. On a losing streak, they'd boo him deaf; when he won, they'd cheer him grinning. When Skoronski emerged from a slump and his horse had passed the winning post, he would reach back with one hand to suggest in very broad terms where his detractors were welcome to osculate. Guys who had ragged him the hardest would laugh the loudest.

In 1938, Seabiscuit, readying for his Pimlico match race conquest of War Admiral, trained at Sportsman's. Winning races there were such popular runners as Sir Tribal, Speed Rouser, Gay Revoke, Maxwell G., and a huge gelding whose upcoming stakes engagements were heralded on an infield sign that read "Come out Saturday and See SLEDGE--the Speed Giant."

Memorable training battles involved men such as Marion H. Van Berg, William Hal Bishop, Clifford Scott, and all-time leading Sportsman's conditioner Richard Hazelton.

Sportsman's Park's major race was the Illinois Derby, a nine-furlong event that sometimes was irreverently referred to as the "Dash for the Dandelions." But it grew into grade II status over the years, being won by such notables as Smarten, Lost Code, Wild Rush, Peaks and Valleys, and lost by Summing, who emerged from it to win the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).

The Illinois Derby's most recent star, of course, is War Emblem, who prepped in Cicero this past spring for his heroics in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness (gr. I). He's the first Sportsman's Park product to win two Triple Crown events. He'll be the last, too. b

Former Daily Racing Form editor John McEvoy is a freelance writer based in Chicago.