On Friday night the finish line will come down, the horses stalled and harness racing at Maywood Park will cease. At the end of the year, so will harness racing at Balmoral Park. A decision by the Illinois Racing Board ends the scheduled meets at the financially troubled tracks, both of which are in bankruptcy. The closures are all about money, jobs and casino gambling --- add to that concern that some healthy horses could be led to slaughter as the parks close.
Standarbred horses have been racing at Maywood Park, located on 1st Avenue in Melrose Park, since 1946, providing jobs for trainers, grooms, farriers and backstretch workers.
“I support my family this way. I love this business,” said trainer Joe Cassano. “When this place closes there are a lot of people that will be out of work.”
“This is how I’ve made my living my whole life,” said trainer Hosea Williams. “Sent three kids through school.”
Maywood Park had originally been scheduled to end its racing season at the end of the year. The new closing date, says long-time trainer Angie Coleman, is a hardship for families who live on the backstretch.
“They are going to lose their home,” she said. “These kids are not going to have school. They are going to be displaced.”
Illinois Racing Board Commissioner Kathy Byrne also worries about what will happen to those most in need.
“It’s a crisis of decency,” she said in an interview. “These people need to be treated decently.”
For years the Johnston family has run both Maywood and Balmoral Parks. And the purses at Maywood, Duke Johnston said, have grown paltry.
“Right now we earn about $20,000 a night in purses and are paying $45,000. I can’t keep doing that,” Johnston said. “We’re burning through a cash flow loss of about, you know, a substantial amount.”
For years the horse racing industry has pushed to allow slots and other casino-type gambling at Illinois racetracks, turning them into so-called racinos. The industry points to other states where casino gambling is allowed at horse tracks and where racing, they say, is flourishing.
Twice controversial gaming bills passed the legislature but were vetoed by then governor Pat Quinn amid security questions and concerns about too much gambling. A new casino bill remains in Springfield budget limbo.
“We’re trying to compete against casinos, five video poker machines in every bar, it’s dooming us,” Johnston said.
Year-round harness racing has been divided in the past between Maywood and Balmoral. Now it will shift to Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero in 2016, but for a much-shortened season lasting for just over 5 months a year.
What to do with the horses that have been racing year round in two facilities is a real concern among trainers like Angie Coleman who say “it’s very much a reality,” that some horses will eventually go to slaughter.
“Yes, yes there will be horse slaughter involved,” said worried trainer Hosea Williams.
Both Duke Johnson and executives at the Illinois Racing Board strongly disagree that any horses will go to slaughter.
But what is crystal clear is that the final race at Maywood goes off Friday night.