The first Washington Park Race Track in Chicago

Aug 11th 2015 08:00 am |

This Saturday I will be attending my first ever Arlington Million Day in Chicago. I’m really looking forward to it as it has always been one of my favorite days on the racing calendar. The upcoming trip to the Windy City made me think of a piece I recently found by legendary race writer John Hervey (aka  ‘Salvator’ and Chicago resident for much of his life) about the first Washington Park on the city’s South Side. The original Washington Park was a track long forgotten even when Hervey wrote about it in the Daily Racing Form in 1922 (as you will see) so it’s a venue that doesn’t register at all in the minds of today’s racing crowd.

The map below marks the location of the original Washington Park in Chicago:


Link to wider view of the above map

While Chicago stands today as an important locale for racing, it is hard to imagine it ever regaining the status it had at the high-point of the old Washington Park. Opened in 1884, the richest race meet of the century — held in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exposition — came there in 1893, . The American Derby, held for the first time during the track’s inaugural season rivaled in prestige any race in America during its short early history. The 1893 edition had the one of the largest racing purses of the entire century for a single race.

The first Washington Park’s days of grandeur were short lived. Foreshadowing what would happen in many places across the country around this time, politicians intent on stopping gambling effectively shut down racing in Chicago. The track closed for the first time in 1895, just two year’s after its epic 1893 meet. It made a brief comeback starting in 1900 but then closed for good – with no hope for resurgence – in 1905. Racing wouldn’t legitimately return to Chicago until 1927 when state politicians legalized pari-mutuel wagering .

In 1922, when John Hervey wrote the piece for the Daily Racing Form I am highlighting this week entitled “Glorious Days of Chicago Racing,” the great mid-western city had long been without racing and little to indicate it would ever return. Keeping that in mind, the beginning of Hervey’s piece, quoted below, must have resonated with his readers that remembered the “good ol’ days” of Washington Park. This is how he opened his article published in the DRF on September 1st 1922. (Read it in its entirety at the DRF archives or a view a PDF version here):

I rode, the other day, for the first time in years, on the South Side “L” [elevated train], in the city of Chicago, around the former site of that most famous of western race courses, Washington Park. When it was laid out, nearly forty years ago, it was still quite ‘country’ around about it. But within ten years, so rapid had the growth of the Windy City been, that already it was submerged by block upon block of business buildings and residences.

In 1892 the South Side “L” was built, the project being stirred on by the approach of the World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893. Jackson Park, the site of the big show, was just south and east of the Washington Park racetrack, and the “L” coming south from the city’s heart several miles, when it reached Washington Park turned eastward and ran directly along its entire southern border. The occupants of the trains as they traversed this part of the route, could look down upon the race track as upon a panorama. As a rule, the motormen were apt to slow up if a race was in progress, sometimes coming to a dead stop, so that passengers might get the benefit of the contest.

Today even the experienced eye of an old-time Chicagoan can detect, from the same point of vantage, no trace which might betray the fact that a race track once existed there. The entire tract of what was one Washington Park is now a maze of city blocks to and fro, where once the hoofbeats of America’s best thoroughbreds beat out their music before cheering multitudes, trolley cars, trucks, express wagons, and every sort of vehicle of business and pleasure ply through the streets. Not only this — in every direction, north, south, east, and west — one may ride for miles and find the same condition. If a tract of ground were wanted for a race track, one would have to travel far indeed from the site of Washington Park to find it. And to one unfamiliar with the past, it would be difficult to imagine that it is little more than a decade since one of America’s premier racing plants there flourished.

Chicago racing came back a few years after Hervey wrote this piece . A second Washington Park opened in a different location in 1926. Hervey was correct in asserting the difficulty in finding a tract of land suitable for racing — the new track was built in the Chicago suburb of Homewood about 15 miles south of the original site. The second Washington Park wrote a significant history of its own in a half century of operation. Citation and Whirlaway both raced there during their Triple Crown seasons. In 1955, it was the site of the legendary match race between Nashua and Swaps. Dr. Fager set the world record for a mile on the Washington Park oval in 1968.  Sadly, in 1977 a fire destroyed the grandstand and put an end to all racing operations.

It’s not impossible to envision an alternate history in Chicago racing where the first (or second) Washington Park survived. It would be even more plausible if a history of high class racing alone could save a racetrack. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case (see Hollywood Park). In my backyard, history laden tracks like Delaware Park, Laurel, Pimlico, and Monmouth Park could easily meet the same fate as the Washington Parks or, a more immediate example, Atlantic City. Keeping this potential fate in mind helps me appreciate these places even more when I have a chance to kill an afternoon at the races. There are few race tracks in America that stand on solid ground and you never know when they might disappear.

News, Notes, and Observations

John Hervey, “The Glorious Days of Chicago Racing,” Daily Racing Form, September 1st 1921

Background about Chicago Racing from the online Encyclopedia of Chicago History .  The author of this entry — Steven Riess — wrote an outstanding book about the history of New York racing and, according to this interview from 2012, is working on a book about Chicago racing. That is definitely something to look forward to!

Location of the original Washington Park described here 

This is the second time I have wrote something about racing that had a connection to a “World’s Fair” — the other came when I wrote about a long forgotten racetrack in Philadelphia.

It’s been awhile since I checked in here but I have an excuse. The Colin’s Ghost home office has been busy moving back to Kennett Square, PA after a few years in Sam Riddle’s hometown of Media, PA.

Thanks for reading and good luck!


Filed in Chicago racing history,Race Tracks, United States,Washington Park

8 Responses to “The first Washington Park Race Track in Chicago”

  1. nicolle says:

    Thank you for this look back on a foundation of our racing history here in Chicago! have a great time at the Million…it’s one of my favourite race days of the year, and it’s always a treat to have the world looking at our local track.

  2. Dave says:

    Dr. Fager’s mile, while in the race called the Washington Park Handicap, was actually raced at Arlington Park.

  3. Kevin Martin says:

    Thank you Nicolle!

    Hi Dave: Wiff! Thank you for the correction. Not sure how I missed that since I wrote about the very topic many years ago: Ha!


  4. Warren Eves says:

    I will forever remember the time the good folks at Western Harness Racing in California paid the way for a number of Southern California scribes to go to the Hambletonian. We made a stop at Marjorie Everett’s Arlington Park Inn. I can still remember how I was in awe as I looked out the window from my first turn suite onto the Arlington Park racetrack. I also remember a dinner we attended when the famed Bill Shoemaker and his wife Babs had a tiff. The incident was handled quickly and the festive night continued. Wow! I had no idea that trip which wound up at the state fair and the Hambletonian would be such a vivid memory. Those were certainly great days. If my memory hasn’t failed me totally, I believe Biff Lowry and the late Biff Lowry made it happen. I had no idea that I would eventually become publicity director of the Western Harness meet at famed Hollywood Park. Wow! How time has flown by.

  5. Helene Conway says:

    Thank you Kevin – excellent choice of topic – please continue

  6. Don Daniels says:

    More than decade ago, there were (perhaps still) many pics of the Old (early) Washington Park online at the American Memory archives (Chicago Daily News). Tried searching and navigating the current site with little success.
    The saved pages and links that I’ve no longer function.
    They were superb quality photo’s.

  7. Kevin Martin says:

    Hey Warren: Always appreciate your contributions! Thank you for sharing!

    Thanks for checking in, Helene. Always good to hear from you!

    Don: That’s too bad. Thanks for the tip – maybe the images are floating around somewhere else on the web.

  8. Owen K. says:

    Can’t talk about Washington Park without a mention of the other Chicago track at the time ,Harlem Race Track, and the “race” war at the two tracks between black and white riders in 1900 and after which was the beginning of a half century of “Jim Crow” at North American tracks.