CRETE | Boxer Jack Dempsey – Kid Blackie, the Manassa Mauler, the heavyweight champion of the world in the 1920s – once trained for a month at Balmoral Park before fighting Gene Tunney before 100,000-plus spectators and 15 million radio listeners in the infamous "Long Count Fight" at Soldier Field.
Dempsey, Amelia Earhart, Al Capone, Mike Ditka and Doug Buffone are just some of the celebrities who at one time or another hung around the 89-year-old horse racing track in Crete, which was once owned by New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
Now the piles of discarded betting slips in the trash cans at the racetrack seem to symbolize something more than bum luck and dashed dreams.
Rows and rows of bleachers sit empty in the dark as harness horses dash neck-and-neck to the finish line at the Kentucky bluegrass-lined track that once drew crowds of about 10,000. A nearly empty claw machine in the arcade has just two prizes left: a "Care Bears" football and a plush automobile from the Pixar movie "Cars."
Someone scrawled "thief" and an arrow next to the picture of a driver on the wall, and no one's bothered to clean it off.
The storied 1-mile racetrack has rounded the stretch, and the finish line is getting closer with every hoof beat.
Balmoral Park, a short trot across the state line from Northwest Indiana, is still the second most wagered-upon harness racing track in the country after the Meadowlands in New Jersey, according to management. It broadcasts its races to nearly 3,000 off-track betting parlors across the country. But it's going dark next year because the Illinois Racing Board withdrew all racing dates for 2016 after the owners filed bankruptcy last year and requested too few racing dates for the coming year.
An Illinois state lawmaker from Calumet City filed a bill to try to save the storied track, but the reality is there are 1-to-100 odds of it passing, Balmoral Park General Manager Mike Belmonte said. A hearing on the legislation was cancelled. The earliest the racetrack could realistically reopen is in 2017, and that's likely only if it gets purchased by a new owner, he said.
Balmoral's closing is expected to wreak havoc upon the farm economy around Crete by driving horse farms, hay providers and other ancillary businesses under. People also fear property taxes could spike when one of the south suburbs' most popular tourist attractions goes dark.
'They're just throwing us out'
The mood is grim among the regulars who hunch over their longnecks and rumpled racing programs but snap to attention whenever the bugle call sounds, indicating the next race is about to start. The closing will leave a void for those who play the ponies, and an even bigger one for those who rely on them for a paycheck.
"There's people who don't know what to do with their life now," horse owner Charlotte Dorante said. "This cancels everything. They're just throwing us out. The school bus comes here to pick kids up because people live in the back."
The 82-year-old known around the track at Mrs. Dorante has owned race horses for 45 years, after her son became a driver. She also used to race at Maywood Park in Melrose Park, Ill., as well, but that closed two months ago for the same reasons. She doesn't know what's next.
"This is what we do," she said.
Attendance has declined at Balmoral Park from about 10,000 a night at one time to about 2,500 to 3,000 on a good night today. Horse racing was once one of the big three sports along with baseball and boxing, but it's declined nationally for years as more gambling options have proliferated and other professional sports like football and hockey have surged in popularity.
"It's tapered off a lot," said Lester Peters Jr. who owns two race horses that compete. "We used to race seven nights a week. Now it's down to just two."
Slot machines in bars in Illinois and casinos along Indiana's Lake Michigan shoreline have taken business away from the track, which hasn't seen any major renovation in at least a decade and still has ashtrays. The overall popularity of horse racing has waned, as evidenced by the Off-Track Betting Parlor in Merrillville shuttering earlier this year.
The amount of money wagered, or the handle, can still be high at Balmoral, up to $110,000 for a single race on a recent Friday. But it's not near what it used to be, said track-goer Gene Greco, who fondly recalls how people packed the joint to see Rambling Willie, a legendary pacing gelding who won 128 races.
Balmoral Park still holds the Illinois state record of a handle of nearly $3.8 million on a single race, but that was set 15 years ago.
"The handle goes down, and it comes out of the horseman's pocket," Greco said. "The handle is down because there's a flood of slot machines everywhere. You go across the street, and there's slot machines in every bar. All I can tell horsemen is 'hope for the best and prepare for the worst,' and it's almost the worst right now."
'Dying on the vine'
Multiple attempts over the years have failed to bring Balmoral Park slots, which are believed by many to be the racetrack's only hope for salvation. The general view at the track is more casual gamblers would come in and make a night of it if they could choose from a variety of slot machines. So-called "racinos" like Hoosier Park in Anderson, Ind., have fared much better financially after adding casino gaming.
"Every track that handles a fraction of what we handle and has slot machines is thriving," said Peters, who's gone to Balmoral his whole life and owned race horses for the last 25 years. "We're dying on the vine, and we handle triple what these other tracks handle. But a lot of people have given up on it, and just thrown in the towel."
Balmoral Park can still draw around 5,000 or 6,000 people if there's a Super Night promotion, and drew 8,000 as recently as 2013. But swathes of seats on the second floor sit empty during weekend races. There's a smattering of often white-haired men on weeknights, when only the OTB parlor is open.
Attendance has picked up since word spread of the closing and people have flocked back for "one last visit."
The track at 26435 Dixie Highway in Crete opened in 1926, and its pedigree links it to the world's most famous racetrack in Louisville, Ky. It was built as Lincoln Fields by Churchill Downs Manager Matt J. Winn on more than 1,000 acres for $2 million, or the equivalent of $27 million today. Winn included flourishes like red Spanish tile, and the place has a grand appearance.
Thoroughbreds raced there for years before Balmoral switched over to harness racing in the early 1990s. It's launched the career of many horses, including Triple Crown winner Whirlaway, the champion horse St. Elmo Hero, and Freaky Feet Pete, who won more than a dozen races this year, including the American National and Breeders Cup.
On a recent Friday, maybe two dozen people hugged the fence line as horses thundered by with drivers in tow in their two-wheeled sulkies. As the evening dragged on, a concession stand attendant lay with her head nestled in her crossed arms on the aluminum counter, dozing off.
'It's a generational thing'
Right now, Balmoral is focused on a Final Night Party planned for Dec. 26 where there will be a free hat giveaway, a free drawing, cash vouchers and a special sale on whatever merchandise is left, Balmoral spokesman Ken Churilla said.
In recent years, promotions have been frequent to get people out to the track. There have been 5K races to raise money for breast cancer research where runners ran on the track alongside horses, an annual craft beer festival, fireworks nights, taco-eating contests and wine tastings.
Bands such as Oak Ridge Boys have played at the expansive horse track, which hosted North America's first World Driving Championship and first introduced standardized saddle pads that made it easier to place bets.
"Live racing's the great thing," Churilla said. "People have come here to see it for generations. It's a generational thing where people who started coming here as a kid come in with their great-grandsons. That's saying something."
Balmoral Park has offered the area highly affordable entertainment on the weekends, since there's free admission and no charge for parking, Churilla said.
"It's been more than just horse racing," he said. "It's been part of Chicagoland for decades. There are so many memories."
The horsetrack has gone dark before such as during World War II and after a fire in the 1950s, but it will be devastating when it has to close at the end of the year, general manager Mike Belmonte said. Horses will have to leave the grounds, and the 200 mostly part-time employees – some of whom live at the track – will be out of work.
"It's shocking this is happening to such a popular harness track," he said. "There are definitely related jobs, but they're hard to quantify. There are the feed farms that make the hay, the veterinarians and all the related people: the grooms, the drivers, all of the horsemen. Some will get stables at Hawthorne racetrack (about an hour north in Cicero), but some will get out of the business."
'No reason to stay'
Horse trainer Joe Nero might head east, maybe to Ohio or Pennsylvania, where harness racing tracks are still hanging on.
"I never thought it would happen," he said. "I thought this place would be here a long time. A lot of people work here, and it pays a lot in taxes. This could cancel out 20,000 jobs when all is said and done. You've got people who sell the hay and straw, the feed stores, the blacksmiths, where they get their supplies, the drivers, owners, grooms, the dentists for the horses."
With no income coming in from racing, horse owners just won't be able to pay the upkeep on their horses, Nero said.
All the horses are supposed to be removed from the racetrack, which has 20 stables on its grounds, by Jan. 6.
"I guarantee there will be some horses that will just be left here," Nero said. "They can't afford to keep them. They can't afford to feed them. They can't afford to take them to race somewhere else."
Balmoral Park had been the premier 1-mile harness racing track in the Midwest, and it handled more than $1 million in wages a night, said longtime trackgoer Joe Pevion, a Peotone resident who's been coming to the track since he was a kid.
He said nothing compares to the thrill of standing right on the fence, five feet from the horses.
"It was New York and Chicago," he said. "The purses were higher, the horses were better, the product was better quality. We had the best drivers, the best horses. But the purses deteriorated. The money's not here no more."