By Mike Paradise
With Illinois Governor’s J B Pritzer’s stay-a-home order issued aimed to curtail the spread of the Coronavirus in effect, like most everybody else I have plenty of time on my hands, so I decided to do some research since it was exactly 50 years ago in mid-April that Hawthorne got its first opportunity to race Standardbreds.
The year was 1970 and, needless to say, it was quite a different racing industry when Suburban Downs at Hawthorne opened its doors for a six-week meeting that ran from April 14 through May 22 under the guidance of General Manager Robert F. Carey, Secretary-Treasurer Beulah Dygert and Racing Secretary Bob Larry.
Back in 1970 there were no less than six Chicago area tracks with Standardbred race meetings. It was a time when pari-mutuel harness racing was prohibited in Cook County after the first week in December through late February.
In 1970 half-mile track racing was conducted an old Aurora Downs (Kane County) and at Balmoral Park (Will County) the first eight weeks of the year. Sportsman’s Park, at that time a five-eighths oval, took over from Feb. 23 through April 13, and then Suburban Downs at Hawthorne got its first chance.
The circuit went back to Sportsman’s from May 23 through July 20. Old Washington Park took over and raced through October 10. Maywood Park grabbed the baton and ended the Cook County racing season December 7. Then it was back to Aurora Downs and Balmoral Park.
The first harness meeting at Hawthorne was a huge success. The nightly handle averaged over seven figures at $1,009,777, with the best night on May 16 when $1,302,503 went through the track’s mutuel machines.
Remember back then there wasn’t any type of off-track wagering facilities anywhere in the country. No simulcasting, no computers or mobile devices. If you wanted to watch and bet on the races, you had to be at the racetrack. The 1970 nightly attendance at Hawthorne averaged a robust 11,686.
Hawthorne’s first leading driver was Hall of Famer Bob Farrington, who also won the dash titles that year at Sportsman’s and Washington Parks, Other notable drivers who competed during Hawthorne’s inaugural meeting included Jim Dennis, Joe Marsh, Jr, Don and Daryl Busse, Bruce Nickells, Delbert Insko, Walter Paisley, Aubrey Petty, Dwayne Pletcher, Gene Riegle, Jack Williams and the Willis brothers, Connel, Jesse and Nelson.
While today we have light-weight composite racing bikes, 37 years ago they were heavy wooden sulkies. The fastest mile at Hawthorne was 1:59.2 by the pacer Robert E Adios. The quickest by a trotter was 2:00.4 by Dayan, who went on to be named the Four-Year-Old Trotter of the Year.
Elsewhere on the Chicago sports scene at that time, the Cubs followed their infamous 1969 season with a second place finish, The White Sox hit rock bottom in 1970 with their worse record ever: 56 wins and 106 losses. The Bulls in their fourth season ended up 39-43.
As for our Bears, they had a pathetic 1-13 record in 1969 while playing at Wrigley Field and it got worse. In early 1970 they lost the coin flip for the No. 1 pick of the entire NFL draft to the Pittsburgh Steelers who took a quarterback named Terry Bradshaw. The Bears then turned around and traded the No. 2 pick of the draft to the Green Bay Packers for three veteran players, none of which lasted more than two years with their club.
Some other interesting notes from the entertainment world that year saw the breakup of The Beatles . . . Rock and Roll stars Jimmy Hendricks and Janis Joplin both losing their lives from drug-related deaths at age 27. . . Monday Night Football debuting on ABC . . . George C Scott won the Oscar for his performance in the blockbuster movie Patton but refused the gold statuette.
There were approximately 125 million less people in living the United States . . . the average annual salary was about $7,800 a year. . . the federal minimium wage was $2.50 an hour. . . the federal debt was only at $450 billion. . . the Dow dropped to 631 points. . .You could buy a brand new top-of-the-line Ford automobile for $3,176 . . . a loaf of bread sold for 25 cents . . . a gallon of gas was 36 cents . . . the cost of a first-class stamp was just 6 cents.
The year of 1970 had its share of absurd news as well.
For example a state commission in Mississippi voted to ban Sesame Street because of its “highly integrated cast of children” . . . United Airlines had “Men-Only” flights that featured free cigars and steak dinners served by stewardesses, the only women allowed on the planes.
In the “How Wrong Can You Be Department” the U.S. Surgeon General in 1970 declared: “It’s time to close the book on infectious diseases. Eleven years later AIDS was clinically detected for the first time and now our current Coronavirus outbreak is the third world-wide Pandemic since the turn of this century.