We're off to the races, place your bet

Sandy Vasko

    When we think of the relationship between man and horse, we think of the old west. But Braidwood men have a history linked to the horse.
    Horses were used to haul lumber to the mines and coal away from it. Mules, a horse's cousin actually lived in the mines with the men.
    But there was another relationship - that of horse and rider at full speed around a track. That's the one we look at today.
    I am not sure when the first horseracing track was built in Braidwood, but I am willing to bet it happened very early in the city's life. The first mention I can find of a racetrack was in 1879 when the town’s 4th of July celebration was held there.
    In August of that year we read in the Wilmington Advocate, “Indications are that the Ancient Order of Hibernians' picnic, near Braidwood, on next Friday, will be on a large scale. Divisions of the order from Morris, Lemont, Dwight, Lockport, Joliet and Wilmington, are to participate, while several fast horses of note are already entered for the races, which feature will be especially attractive.”
    By 1880 the word that described the track was “old.” We read, “A race has been made up for next Friday between Jule Gardner's mare and David Husband's colt, for $25 a side (about $630 today). It will come off at the old race course, tho' the hour is not yet stated.”
    Starting around 1883 those who wanted to seriously race went to the track at Wilmington. It was practically brand new and well kept up by an association of businessmen. We read on June 8, 1883, “Speaking of horse races, Dave Husband says he is open for negotiations so soon as the backers of Gardner's horse are ready to put up the “sand.”
    “The latter faction says that their “plug” is ready, on a wager of $200 ($5,225) or upwards; furthermore, that they will give Husband's horse 15 rods start in a mile, on the Wilmington Track.”
    The mid 1880's were prosperous times in Braidwood, and a group of racing men got together to spend their money building a new track. By August of 1885 racing was once more back on Braidwood soil. We read, “Our horse fanciers are speeding their horses on the new racecourse, daily.”
    It wasn't only horse owners that came to the track, Braidwood was a betting town, and everyone wanted a piece of the action. We read in September of 1885, “The long talked of trotting match by Mart. Sitterley's horse and Joe Donnelly's mare finally came off on Tuesday afternoon.
    “The race was for a $100 purse (about $2,700 today), 2-in-3, mile heats, on the new track. About half of the business places in town were closed during the contest, and thousands repaired to the grounds to see the fun. The result was a victory for Donnelly's mare in two straight heats. Time, 3:35 and 3:29.  A good many side bets were made.”
    Apparently only Braidwood horses were eligible to race at the track, but that did not mean the Braidwood boys refused to race a Wilmington horse. We read in September of 1885, “Sime's horse, of Wilmington, was barred out of the proposed races at the picnic on Monday.
    “The boys say that if Sime will match his horse against an equal, or an approach to one, he can be accommodated on any day at Dyer's stable, and for any amount.”
    Each year the track was improved, the stands enlarged and the racetrack improved overall. It became the traditional place to hold celebrations for the town, especially on Fourth of July. The program for the 1907 celebration included running races, trotting races, and trotting with buggies on both days of the weekend.  
    I know that races were featured at the Fourth of July celebrations through 1917 in Braidwood. By that time a mule race was a standard feature as well.
    We also know from a photo taken at the track that steeplechase races were also held. The photo is a great shot, showing the horse in mid air jumping a hurdle. The jockey is standing in the stirrups, wearing a suit and what looks like a straw hat. We have no idea of who he is, or what horse he rides, but we can see the enthusiasm of horse and rider to win the race.