HOMEWOOD | The Washington Park Race Track will receive its rightful recognition at 2 p.m. Oct 28 when the village of Homewood Heritage Committee dedicates an Illinois State Historical Society Historic Marker at 17800 Halsted St.
The marker will note where the storied track made history from its opening on July 3, 1926, until its grandstand and clubhouse were destroyed by fire on Feb. 5, 1977.
Elaine Egdorf, founding president of the Homewood Historical Society and current vice president of the Illinois State Historical Society, said the 206 acres the track once occupied is now largely comprised of the retail stores along Halsted Street, light industry and office buildings.
"Many people just don't have any idea that there was a track here," Egdorf said. "It was a big part of U.S. history. It was one of the most famous horse racing tracks."
Egdorf said the track's history actually began in Chicago in 1884. Washington Park was originally located adjacent to Chicago's South Side Washington Park — hence the name. After Chicago cracked down on gambling, it moved to the unincorporated area that later became the eastern part of Homewood. The location was ideal, as it was nestled between a main automobile route from Chicago, Illinois 1, and the Illinois Central railroad tracks.
"The most famous match race in modern American history was Aug. 31, 1955," Egdorf said.
That was when Eddie Arcaro and his horse, Nashua, went head to head against legendary jockey Willie Shoemaker and his horse, Swaps, in a two-horse race to determine which was the fastest.
Arcaro won the race that drew an estimated millions of television viewers.
"That was one of the biggest claims to fame here," Egdorf said.
Many local people took part-time jobs at the park during racing season, according to Egdorf.
She recalled that the park also hosted concerts after it was purchased by the Madison Square Garden Corp.
"The opening night of the big-name entertainment — I was there — was Tony Orlando and Dawn," Egdorf said.
She recalls vividly when the fire that ended the park's history occurred and said a cause was never determined.
"It was such a bitter, bitter cold night that some of the rookie firemen, their feet were frozen to the ground," she said.
Homewood Village President Rich Hofeld said dedicating the marker "acknowledges a very important part of Homewood's history."
"In the earlier years, that was the big draw to Homewood," Hofeld said. "After the park burned down in 1977, the area was redeveloped. We have all the shopping areas there now."