Ed. Note: As the famed Balmoral Park in Crete, Illinois prepares to host its final scheduled harness races tonight, I’m turning things over to the person who introduced me to “the track” – my Dad… just as his Father did before him. — JZ
As a baby boomer in the 50’s dear old dad would wake me up in the wee hours of the morning to go fishing on the Kankakee River and we’d travel Dixie Highway, Route 1 in Crete, Illinois in route to our favorite spots….I always was intrigued by a big brick building we’d pass surrounded by overgrown weeds, and a look of neglect. I was told it was a racetrack once, known as Lincoln Fields and that famous horses raced there. Years later, in the late 1960’s, the place would be reborn under the ownership of William S. Miller, a millionaire breeder and former chairman of the Illinois Racing Board. The lights went on at the new Balmoral in the late 60’s and my father, Harold, and I were there to welcome it back to life! The scene was repeated countless times in the years to follow….we’d feel the excitement build as we could see the lights from quite a distance illuminating the nighttime sky from its rural Crete location. As a broadcaster in the 70’s, Balmoral was a sponsor of one of harness racing’s first regularly scheduled radio programs, Harness Happenings, that I hosted. During that time I met and interviewed many people in the industry, from horsemen to the driver of the starting gate to the manager of the finance department! Also had the privilege of knowing one of racing’s greatest race announcers, the legendary Phil Georgeff who would on occasion permit me to announce some races ‘live’ at the track. Little did I know or even ponder the thought that 30 years later I’d be a late bloomer in the colorful sport of harness racing and actually own and drive in races on a limited basis and yes, suiting up at Balmoral was part of the package and racing there was indeed a thrill that few will ever understand let alone experience firsthand.
The Balmoral connection, for me, included my ex-wife working as nighttime switchboard operator, a sister-in law working for years in concessions and her husband was supervisor of grounds and maintenance. Balmoral was always a special place – much more than just racing and wagering. It was a place for friends to get together and enjoy the atmosphere and each other’s company. It was a place to enjoy food and drinks and host parties in the clubhouse. It was a boon to the local economy in many ways as both a major employer and taxpayer. Balmoral was a fixture and became one of the premier racetracks in the country. Balmoral Park also played host to the Great Midwest Fair, which, at the time was second in size only to the Illinois State Fair, back in the early 1970.s Many great entertainers played the Fair……
Then came the casinos, their deep pockets, tremendous lobbyists, Illinois politicians which are well known for – well – they are Illinois politicians, what more needs to be said? Racing, which had been the only game in town for years was in trouble without legislative help and they did not get it. Hey, this is an industry we’re talking about, right? People’s lives, tens of thousands of them involved in the racing industry were affected but in Illinois the lure of flashing lights, bells, whistles and a casino lobby so strong was putting the handwriting on the wall…..racing at Balmoral and at other Illinois racetracks was in trouble. Gone from the landscape is Aurora Downs, Washington Park, Quad City Downs, harness racing at Fairmount Park, recently Maywood Park closed, harness racing at Hawthorne Racecourse has not been conducted in five or six years……the beat goes on, and the beat is a death knell. Somehow, Balmoral held on, purses would dwindle making it virtually impossible for horsemen and women to eke out a living and the ones with the best stock and the ability to move, left the State for those proverbial greener pastures where slot infused racetracks were doing well.
The storm that ultimately blew Balmoral away involved politics of course – an alleged scheme between track ownership and the now jailed Governor of Illinois, and of course the casinos who somehow managed to get a court to award the outrageously inane treble damage award to the tune of roughly $78 million! The heck with the jobs, the heck with the economy, the heck with what the racetrack meant to the community, just close the track down, eliminate it as ‘competition’ and laugh all the way to the bank in the process. To many of us, it’s a crying shame. Losing Balmoral is like losing a member of the family. Making matters worse is that we know in advance when the funeral will take place. Pre-planning a funeral is one thing, knowing its date is hard to comprehend! We look back at the many years of good times spent on the outside apron hearing the hoofbeats and watching the colorful horses and drivers compete, the many nights in the clubhouse overlooking the finish line, the times spent in the Press Box with good friends who worked there and for 14 years in a row we reflect on the Harold Zahn Purple Heart Memorial Race that my wife Lavonne and I hosted in memory of a great race fan, a WWII Paratrooper, and Purple Heart veteran……fortunately we have the photos and the memories. Harold was a regular second floor clubhouse fixture right up until the time he died in 2002. Matter of fact, we were sitting with him in his usual perch just one week before he passed and when he died, wouldn’t you know he had a ‘live’ betting voucher in his pocket from Balmoral Park?
So much more could be added about this special place that is being snatched away from us. It’s definitely leaving a void in our lives and the lives of many. What will the future hold for the horsemen, the employees, the fans and certainly for the horses? Where will they end up? The thoughts are grim to say the least. We will miss the grand old lady on Dixie Highway in Crete. We’ll miss the lights, the sights, the sounds, and the people. Thing is decades of memories will linger on. We will always have them. Few people can attest they were there on Opening Night over 45 years ago and will also be there when the lights go out on December 26, 2015. I will be one of those people and Lavonne will be there too with much to reflect on. Goodbye Balmoral, rest in peace and maybe, just maybe, there will someday be a resurrection once again. Is there another William S. Miller out there somewhere???