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By Mike Paradise
Forty long years ago Arlington Park, the Midwest’s long-time premier thoroughbred racing facility, hosted back-to-back years of harness racing on its huge mile and one-eighth oval. Those Standardbred meets came in 1977 and 1978 at the northwest suburban facility in the village of Arlington Heights, Illinois.
The harness racing meets came about when Arlington’s sister track Washington Park, also one of the country’s foremost thoroughbred racetracks in the middle decades of the last century, and a popular and successful Illinois facility for harness racing, burned to the ground in February of 1977.
Officials at Arlington Park, owned by the same Gulf & Western proprietors as Washington Park, asked and were granted permission from the Illinois Racing Board to conduct Washington’s Standardbred meeting at Arlington Park from late September through the first week of December in 1977.
It was a bold experiment because the Chicago northwest suburbs were practically virgin territory when it came to harness racing. There wasn’t a Standardbred track within 20 miles of Arlington Park and no Illinois OTB parlors available to wager at until many years later.
Washington Park was in Homewood, Illinois, a close south suburb of Chicago. It regularly put up average mutual handles of more than $1 million on-track a night and attendances of over 8,500 a program at its harness meetings in the 1970s.
On the other hand, Arlington Park’s initial harness racing meet in 1977 saw its handle substantially lower with a average nightly figure of $661,898. Its nightly crowd averaged 4,640, about 3,900 less than Washington’s. The 1978 Arlington harness handle did have a moderate increase average to $748,504 while the attendance went up marginally with 250 more patrons a night.
One of the drivers and trainers at the Arlington Park harness meets was the then 26-year-old Carl Porcelli Jr. We caught up to the now veteran Illinois horseman and asked him about racing at those Arlington meets.
“When they first started they tried to go with races of a mile and one-eighth but a lot of fans didn’t like handicapping races that weren’t at a mile and most of the horsemen complained about the longer distance for their horses, so then they tried to go with races of one mile long coming out of the thoroughbred chute but again harness horsemen objected because their horses weren’t used to coming out of a chute with an (open) turn to the left of them, and then a hub rail. Some horses shied away from it. A lot of drivers were grumbling about coming out of the chute with their horses because they didn’t have enough time to get their horses up to speed. So then the track decided to go with mile races on their bigger track where the mile start was actually right on the crown of the turn. Remember back then we didn’t have a staggered starting gate like we have now. If you had a horse coming out of the nine-hole it was horrible. You had to go all-out with an outside horse just to try and keep up with the gate while horses on the inside were going much slower. Eventually they ended up letting the horses go a little later further past the starting mile point, soon after you came out of the turn but those outside horses were still at a disadvantage.”
Stan Banks was the leading driver at the 1977 Arlington Park meet and he shared the top spot in 1978 with an up-and-coming driver in his early 20’s by the name of Dave Magee. The track record-holder at the Arlington meet was the future National Hall of Fame pacing mare Silk Stockings with a 1:57.4 mile clocking.
Not long after the 1978 meeting Arlington signed a 10-year lease to conduct its harness racing meet at Maywood Park.
In July of 1985 what started out as a small fire spread out of control and completely destroyed Arlington Park’s Grandstand and Clubhouse when it was owned by a Richard L. Duchossois led Illinois investment group. The facility was completely rebuilt and renamed Arlington International Racecourse. The older Chicago circuit racetracks were considered susceptible to fires because of their extensive wood structures and antiquated fire codes. Old Hawthorne was built in 1891, Washington Park in 1926 and the original Arlington Park in 1927.
By Mike Paradise
. . . The first Chicago circuit race facility to handle over $2 million on-track was at Hawthorne at its 1974 winter meet, when it did $2,018,873 on the Saturday afternoon March 15th program that year. In 1985 Hawthorne established its all-time single program handle when $2,430,466 was bet on the Saturday, February 17th daytime card.
. . . Heading into 1979 the $2 million handle plateau on a single Illinois Standardbred program was reached only three times, twice at Sportsman’s Park and once at Hawthorne.
Nevertheless, in 1979 the $2 million on-track handle figure was surpassed an astonishing 14 times that year at Sportsman’s Park. Their July 5th Friday program and their Saturday July 6th cards combined for a new Illinois record weekend total of $4,216,646 bet, all without in-state betting parlors and out-of-state wagering facilities.
. . . In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Illinois had eleven race tracks at one time or another conducting an extended harness racing meet: Aurora Downs (North Aurora), Balmoral Park (Crete), Cahokia Downs (East St. Louis), Fairmount Park (Collinsville), Hawthorne Race Course (Stickney), Maywood Park (Melrose Park), Quad Cities Downs (originally named East Moline Downs), Sportsman’s Park (Cicero) and Washington Park (Homewood).
The Arlington Park (Arlington Heights), also, held a brief two-year meet in the late 70’s on its mile and one-eighth oval.
Now Hawthorne Race Course stands alone for the Illinois Standardbred racing industry.
. . . Hawthorne’s first harness meeting was in 1970 and the initial Suburban Downs session had an average handle of $1,009,777 and an average nightly attendance of 11,686. The highest on-track handle for Hawthorne’s first season came on May 3rd that year when $1,302,503 was wagered on a single Saturday program.
. . . Bob Farrington, a National Hall of Fame inductee in 1980, was Hawthorne’s first leading driver. Also, in 1970 Farrington was atop the final driver standings at Sportsman’s Park and Washington Park. Phil Milburn posted the most winning drives that year at Maywood Park.
From 1964 through 1970 Farrington would log a record 16 driving titles on the Chicago Cook County Circuit with six each at Sportsman’s and Washington Parks, two at Maywood and one at Hawthorne.
. . .Sportsman’s Park averaged a seven-figure mutuel handle for the first time in its 1969 summer meeting, when it reached $1,024,919 per night. Maywood Park recorded its initial million-dollar plus nightly average handle in 1974 ($1,028,210). Three years earlier (1971) the half-mile track had its highest attendance average of 10,641 at a 31 day meeting.
. . . Speaking of attendance, Sportsman’s water mark, came on July 20th of 1970 when 22,832 patrons jammed the facility. Ten years later (Sept, 27. 1980), Maywood Park enjoyed its all-time best crowd when 20,133 paid their way into the racetrack. Hawthorne’s best attendance for a program was when in 1982 when 17,738 patrons showed up for a Saturday program.
. . . ,Nevertheless, when it comes to the all-time Chicago circuit attendance record for a single program it’s Washington Park by a landslide. A hard-to-believe total of 30,222 customers poured through its turnstiles for Washington’s very first harness racing program on September 3, 1962.
Washington Park held harness racing meets from 1962 through 1976 on its one mile oval until a massive fire burned the mostly wooden structure to the ground. The facility was located in Homewood, IL, a near to the city south side suburb, and easily accesible by public transportation.
. . . In 1979 for the first time the Sportsman’s Park summer harness racing meeting out-handled and out-drew the thoroughbred meet at Arlington Park. The daily average handle for Sportsman’s was a new state record of $1,627,639, about $5,000 higher daily than Arlington’s. The average attendance at the Sportsman’s Standardbred meeting was 13,136, over 2,000 daily more than the thoroughbreds.
Sportsman’s in-town facility location, on Cicero Avenue, a heavily traffic thoroughfare, that stretched from the north side of the city to the far south side, was just across the street from the Chicago city limits and that played a big role that year when it surpassed Arlington Park, positioned some 25 miles northwest of the city.
Long lines of cars at gasoline stations were the norm in 1979 caused by a significant decrease of oil output in the wake of the Iranian Revolution. The price of crude oil nationally nearly doubled that year.
. . . On November 19, 1978, a raging fire destroyed Hawthorne’s Grandstand and heavily damaged its Clubhouse. Its 1979 racing was moved to its next-door neighbor Sportsman’s Park. Hawthorne was rebuilt and the racetrack was reopened in September of 1980 for its thoroughbred meet.
. . . Maywood Park’s all-time payoff for a two dollar wager came on December 8, 1985 on its “Super Bet.” On three consecutive races, a winning Super Bet ticket had to have the correct Exacta in one race, the right Exacta in the next, and the accurate Trifecta numbers on the third race of the wager.
The winning combination on that December of 1985 night of (1-2) (6-3) (1-8-4) paid a whopping $127,833 and 60 cents. The three winning drivers on the massive winning payout were Walter Paisley, Dave Magee and Mark Saporito.
By Mike Paradise
I’ve been covering our sport for more years than I probably like to admit (45) and until last year I never saw the words “Guatemala” and “Harness Racing” in the same sentence.
That all changed when Juan Franco came along to drive in Illinois with the start of the 2016 meeting at Hawthorne.
The now 40-year-old Franco is a native of the Republic of Guatemala, a Central America country bordered by Mexico and Belize to its Northwest, Honduras to its East, El Salvador to its South with the Caribbean to one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other.
Modern Guatemala once formed the core of the Mayan civilization conquered by the Spanish in the 16th Century. Now a days the country’s main exports are fruits, vegetables, flowers, handicrafts, and cloths.
Not exporting harness racing drivers.
Tourism, much of it coming via cruise ships, has become one of the main drivers of the country’s economy with its popular archaeological sites, pre-Hispanic cities, and beautiful beaches.
Not because of its horse racing tracks. There aren’t any.
“They have riding horses in my native country, but no horse racing,” said Franco who came to the United States about “21 years ago.”
The obvious question to Juan was, who or what steered him to the harness racing industry and eventually becoming a driver?
“It was Donny Freese,” he answered. “I went to work for Donny soon after I came here. I started out cleaning stalls for him. He saw I was hard worker who showed up every day, so he began teaching me things around the horses. Donny gave me two horses to groom. After that he taught me how to jog horses and then how to train them. I worked for him for a long time.”
“Then I went to work for Homer Hochstetler. He’s a very nice man and an excellent trainer. I learned a lot from Homer, too. Now I’ve been with Nelson Willis, a real great guy. In the last 20 years I’ve worked for only those three people. Nelson is the one who gave me a lot of my chances to drive early on.”
Like most inexperienced newcomers to a driver colony, Juan learned bringing home a winning horse when you’re almost exclusively at the lines of longshots, can be an arduous task.
While Juan did get his first pari-mutuel victory in his tenth professional drive with the pacing mare Parklane Dragon for trainer Nelson Willis at 25-1 odds, Franco would make only four more visits to the Hawthorne winner’s circle in the 2016 summer meeting in his next 136 drives.
Nevertheless, Juan gained valuable driving experience in his first season and got to know more horsemen and they in turn got to know the hard-working Franco better and it showed in this year’s Hawthorne summer meet.
Franco’s win total jumped to 28 with 44 seconds and 61 thirds, while his drives shot up with 200 more opportunities. Horses he drove earned over $300,000, six times greater than in his first season as a driver.
“I had a very good, very good meeting this summer at Hawthorne,” said Franco.
The Crete, Illinois resident also drove his first two winners in an ICF stake race, first guiding the Willis stable’s 2-year-old filly Lex Two to her victory in the July 22nd leg of the Incredible Tillie stake series, and then a week later steering the Kim Roth Stable’s 3-year-old Sporty Redhot to his Robert F. Carey stakes triumph .
“Winning those stakes has been my biggest thrill as a driver so far,” continued Juan. “I love what I’m doing and I’m thankful to the trainers who have given me a chance to drive their horses.”
Juan is living his American dream and most likely enjoys one distinction over other drivers.
Franco has got to be the leading driver in the United States from Guatemala, since I don’t know of any another from his native country doing what he’s doing.
“I’m a very happy man and I love this country,” was Franco’s reply.
Good luck to Juan when the Hawthorne winter harness racing meet gets under way on January 5th.