For the Sun-Times

Bankrupt and without racing dates for 2016, Maywood Park held its last harness race on Friday night.

Maywood Park ushered in parimutuel betting on standardbred racing in Illinois in 1946 and, over the years, many of the sport’s biggest stars have raced on its half-mile oval. But the track became a casualty of the changing landscape of horse racing in general and, more specifically, a $77.8 million civil judgment won by four Illinois riverboat casinos against the racing venues operated by the Johnston family, Maywood in the near-west suburbs and Balmoral Park in south-suburban Crete. Both racetracks have been in Chapter 11 bankruptcy and the Johnstons have unsuccessfully attempted to sell them.

In light of its ongoing financial difficulties, earlier in the year the track had received permission from the Illinois Racing Board to vacate its 2015 dates after Oct. 2. When the board in its dates hearing on Tuesday opted to place all harness racing for 2016 at Hawthorne Race Course in Stickney, snubbing the requests made by Maywood and Balmoral, it signaled the death knell for the Johnston-run tracks. The Johnstons are primary owners of Balmoral and, since 1979, have staged racing at Maywood under a lease with the Galt family. Balmoral will close when its dates are done at the end of the year.

“We earn about $20,000 a night in purses and are paying $45,000,” Maywood Park president Duke Johnston said. “I can’t keep doing that. We’re trying to compete against casinos, five video-poker machines in every bar [and] it’s dooming us.”

Horse racing in Illinois, thoroughbred and harness, is a shell of what is was a decade ago. State tracks simply have not been able to compete with other jurisdictions that supplement purses from revenues generated from on-track slot machines and other gaming sources.

The civil judgment that put the Johnston family’s operations in an untenable financial hole stem from the fallout of the case that sent former Gov. Rod Blagojevich to prison for 14 years. Part of the evidence that helped convict Blagojevich was a phone call recorded by the FBI in which the governor attempted to shake down former Balmoral president John Johnston for a $100,000 campaign contribution.

Hawthorne was awarded 116 harness dates in 2016 and will hold meets from Jan. 6 to Feb. 6 and from May 6 to Sept. 25.

“It hurts to [not award dates to Maywood and Balmoral], but it’s the right thing we must do in the interest of keeping the sport alive,” Racing Board member Kathy Byrne said. “It is very hard to see a racetrack close. But this is a time of contraction in the whole industry whether there are slot machines or not.”

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