Gone For Good

by Ed Meyer

posted on November 3, 2008 in General Discussion, News | 1 Comment >>

Sportsman’s Park, a horse-racing facility that has been closed since 2003, will be demolished to make way for a shopping center.

Town officials this week awarded two contracts totaling $1.5 million to N.F. Demolition of Cicero and JABCO Industrial Services of Chicago Heights to do the work.

Officials said the companies will remove several buildings, a retaining wall and parking lots.

The leveling of the site will prepare the land for the last phase of the Sportsman’s Park development project: 68 acres of retail stores and parking.

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.

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).