Part Twenty-Eight: America’s Jockey

A view of Solon Bemanʼs Washington Park Jockey Club, a private facility situated with a grand view of the racetrack. Membership was restricted by race, ethnicity and financial ability, and was physically segregated from the public areas and grandstand. Note the iron fence in the foreground separating paying customers from the club grounds.

The series has completed a look at the development of the major intersections along Lake Park Avenue, and turned to stories of interest within the Hyde Park and Kenwood communities.  The articles are all of varying topics, but relate to the residences that currently or in the past have defined the urban fabric.

Susan O’Connor Davis

Towards the close of 1882, a meeting was held in Chicago’s newly opened Grand Pacific Hotel at Park and Jackson Streets. Within architect W.W. Boyington’s six-story mansard topped wonder, wealthy racing aficionados from across the city gathered. The task at hand was to discuss a proper site for a prestigious racing track and clubhouse, and inside the hotel’s luxurious surroundings a committee was selected to head the endeavor.

The grounds eventually chosen by this committee were within the sprawling village of Hyde Park, and located between 61st and 63rd streets, from Cottage Grove Avenue west to Grand (Martin Luther King) Boulevard. The selected site comprised 80 acres south of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Washington Park and to the southwest of the Midway Plaisance.

Conceptually the idea of those green spaces began as early as 1849 when developer John S. Wright proposed a network of urban parks, at a time when there were very few, with the hopes of stimulating development. It took more than a decade for his idea to garner support, but by 1866 Paul Cornell, George Kimbark, Jonathan Scammon, and other Hyde Parkers investigated other parks that provided open pleasure grounds and would give “lungs to the city.”

On February 24, 1869 the South Parks Commission was officially created. The commissioners hired Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the nation’s most influential and admired landscape firm of the time, responsible for the design of New York City’s Central Park. Olmsted and Vaux believed in the power of urban parks to offer relief from the congestion of the city, as well as to provide open space where people of all social classes could interact.

The elaborate plan they developed for the South Parks was but one element of a vast park and boulevard system that encircled the city. Work began and progressed rapidly—a five-acre nursery with 60,000 trees was planted; roads and sewers were laid out; and preliminary grading of planting areas began.

Unfortunately, Olmsted and Vaux’s grand plans for the South Parks were housed in one of the buildings destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire. The loss was a major one; work on the parks was immediately stopped. Work resumed a year later and soon nearly four-fifths of the western park (Washington) had been improved. By 1875, 350 acres had been tilled and seeded and planted with trees.

In 1881 the commission was asked to officially name the parks, and they were renamed to honor the nation’s first and seventh presidents. A park adjacent to the lake became Jackson Park and the western park was named Washington Park.

Into this mix of public improvements came the idea of a private pleasure ground. The new racetrack was officially chartered in February 1883 to “promote good fellowship among its members by providing a clubhouse and pleasure grounds for their entertainment…” The 174 stockholders financed the construction, and paid memberships would be limited to 900 prominent families.

Plans moved forward quickly; grounds were completed in the spring of 1884. On June 28 the Washington Park Jockey Club and Race Track opened for its inaugural season. According to the Hyde Park Herald, the day was “a success in every particular.” The grounds and the track were “in perfect condition” and the list of race entries was one of the largest ever seen.

American jockeys for most of the nineteenth century were African-Americans and Isaac Murphy was a major figure in the sport. The first of Murphyʼs three Kentucky Derby wins came the month prior to his 1884 American Derby victory at Washington.
The highlight of that year was the American Derby, the most prestigious race in the nation. It was won by the Isaac Burns Murphy – the preeminent African-American jockey of the late 19th century, if not the best jockey in the United States. The horse was named “Modesty.”

Isaac Burns Murphy was the son of a Kentucky bricklayer who fought with the Union Army and died as a Confederate prisoner, and a slave named America Murphy. He started racing at 12 under his given name of Isaac Burns, but changed his last name to Murphy as a tribute to his maternal grandfather.

Horse racing was a dangerous occupation that paid extremely well for successful jockeys. By 1882 he was earning $20,000 a year. Murphy went on to win the Derby again in 1885, 1886 and 1888 – four times in total, one shy of a record for that race.

The 1885 season was even more successful and by 1886 the club was clearly one of the premiere racing grounds in the country, boasting that a full third of the city’s millionaires as members. For Chicago’s social elite, Opening Day and the running of the American Derby had become essential dates on the June social calendar.

The Opening Day festivities for the Washington Park Jockey Club were scheduled for the Saturday before the big race. The club opened the doors from 4 until 7 for a sumptuous members-only reception.

The Herald described the parks that June day as “looking their prettiest” and the boulevards as “thronged with the finest turnout of equipages that has been seen for many a day.” Down Olmsted and Vaux’s avenues – lined with spectators eager to get a glimpse of someone famous – paraded the finest horse drawn carriages. Landaus, Coupes, Victorias, Tandems and Phaetons owned by the city’s elite made their way to the track.

Elegantly dressed guests – men in high silk hats and women in their finest gowns – were welcomed to celebratory event in the elaborately timbered dining room of the club house. Afterwards many held intimate dinner parties in the private dining parlors.

American flags flapped in the breeze above the shingle covered the clubhouse designed by architect Solon S. Beman. Positioned twelve feet above the track and separated from it by a sloping lawn, the large structure was “commodious and well arranged,” according to the Herald, and offered a fine view of the thoroughbreds. In addition to the dining facilities, the resplendent club featured a billiard room, sumptuous sitting rooms with stone fireplaces and sleeping quarters for those that may have spent a very long day at the races.

The third running of the American Derby took place a week later, on Saturday the 26th of June 1886. This one-and-a-half-mile event for three-year-olds was promoted as one of the great sporting events in the country. While that may sound rather self-serving, fields were large and prize winnings continued to grow substantially. By 1893 (the year of the Columbian Exposition) $50,000 was paid to the winning horse – the second highest purse in nineteenth-century American racing.

In 1886, the day found the stables, bookmakers, quarters and members stalls all well arranged. The guests were appropriately outfitted and the day bright. Jockeys noted the track was fast. And it was – Isaac Burns Murphy won the American Derby for the third time, riding Silver Cloud.

Chicagoans enjoyed horse racing since the early 1830s and a half century later had more tracks than any other major metropolitan area. Gambling was a big part of the picture at these tracks, and politically connected bookmakers often operated illegal off-track betting parlors and pool rooms. While Washington Park was considered more upscale than the others, gambling was an essential element and many believed the races were fixed as a result.

The club ran into headwinds when Reform Party candidate Hempstead Washburne was elected as mayor of Chicago in 1892. (Hyde Park was no longer a bucolic suburb and had been annexed to the city.) The mayor’s goal was to close the six racetracks through a progressive gambling reform campaign.

Horse racing was not the target, but gambling was. Although races continued to draw large crowds, Washington Park’s track was forced to close. It was but one of 289 tracks across the country that shut their doors.

However, the Jockey Club remained open. To compensate for the lack for a major attraction for its members, Charles Blair McDonald (known as C.B.) built a short nine-hole golf course in the center of the track for the club’s members in 1896. A Chicago native, C.B. became the country’s first golf course architect when he designed the historic Chicago Golf Club, in 1892. The famous Downers Grove course, like Washington Park, was originally nine holes.

Enter a new mayor, Carter Harrison II. Unlike Washburne, Harrison did not attempt to legislate morality. Chicago’s vice districts boomed during his tenure and the rather tame sport of horseracing and its requisite betting were reinstated; Washington Park reopened in 1898.

Thoroughbreds would race in the Hyde Park area for another six years. Eventually Mayor Harrison was pressured to put an end to trackside betting, however officials of the club thought patrons would pay admission to see the races anyway. The last Derby Day at Washington Park was held Wednesday June 22, 1904 just before Illinois banned gambling and put an end to all local horse racing. On that final day $1,500 was collected at the gates. A year prior, when gambling was available, the revenue was 10 times greater.

After the turn of the century, the prestige of the club had declined independent of any reform movement. Time had moved on; more modern and spacious clubs with golf courses drew the members to other locations. The Hyde Park and Kenwood communities were also on the cusp of great change as wealthy residents moved north making this and other social clubs less important.

A view of Washington Park Race Track on Derby Day, possibly taken in 1894, looking east from the Jockey Club. For the publicʼs enjoyment, there was a five-hundred-foot long, two story grandstand that could seat ten thousand spectators – with refreshment rooms, parlors and reception rooms.

In September 1922, renowned turf writer John Hervey penned a piece for the Daily Racing Form entitled “Glorious Days of Chicago Racing.” The city had long been without racing and there was little to indicate it would ever return. With that in mind, a portion of Hervey’s nostalgic piece follows.

“I rode, the other day, for the first time in years, on the South Side ‘L’ 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 10 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.”

After his wins at Washington Park, Isaac Burns Murphy faced a rocky road. At the height of his career he was the best jockey of his time and still holds the highest winning percentage. But the daily life and work of a jockey was extremely arduous, and dangerous, according to Steven A. Reiss, author of The American Jockey, 1865-1910.

Jockeys were under pressure to win at almost any cost and endured extreme measures to control their weight. Their day started exercising horses before breakfast. Jockeys then worked out at a gym attached to the track and put on layers of heavy clothing for a daily run of four or five miles – all to keep off pounds.

In August of 1890, Murphy was suspended for riding while intoxicated and falling off his horse. In the following years he battled both alcohol abuse and weight gain. In 1895 Murphy failed to win a single race, was forced to retirement and died three months later.

The Washington Park Jockey Club and track were razed in 1908. By 1912 developers constructed houses in the Washington Park subdivision on the land where crowds once cheered for America’s son. Beman’s shingle covered Washington Park Club may have been forgotten, but Murphy was not. The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame was created six decades after his death – Isaac Burns Murphy was the first jockey inducted.