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Aurora boasts storied horse racing past

AurorHistorical Society executive director John Jaros talks about local horse racing tracks Sunday AurorRegional Fire Museum. Racetracks were also used

Aurora Historical Society executive director John Jaros talks about local horse racing and tracks Sunday at the Aurora Regional Fire Museum. Racetracks were also used for circus visits, airshows and races of all types. Mary Beth Nolan~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 2, 2011 5:15AM

While few people are around to remember the days when horses bolted out of Aurora’s fire station, many do recall when Aurora had its claim to fame in the horse racing industry.

“The Chicago area has a very rich horse racing history,” said John Jaros, Executive Director of the Aurora Historical Society.

Jaros recalled as a youth hearing broadcasts of Phil Georgette, “the voice of Chicago horse racing” known for his distinctive style of giving results from Arlington, Balmoral, Maywood and Aurora Downs racetracks.

Sunday, the Aurora Historical Society and the Aurora Regional Fire Museum co-hosted “Horse Racing in the Aurora Area,” the first in a series of programs to cast light on the City of Lights.

About 25 people attended Sunday’s program within “The Hayloft Theater” of the Aurora Regional Fire Museum. The fire house’s curator, David Lewis, said the Aurora fire station had eight horses in the building and the theater once stored their hay and oats.

The fire equipment was drawn by horses before the Aurora Fire Department acquired its first motorized vehicle in 1911. “When the alarm came, the horses shot out at breakneck speed — they probably could have done the quarter-mile just as fast as any race horse back in those days,” Jaros told the audience.

The presentation brought to life some of the stories associated with the Aurora Driving Park from 1890 to 1920 and the famed Aurora Downs racetrack, which operated from 1922 until the late 1970s. Aurora Downs was part of the Central States Fair & Exposition Park that people remember still this day.

Jaros had images from the Aurora Historical Society’s collection that trace the history of horse racing in the area, including old postcards, ticket stubs and Beacon-News newspaper clippings.

Jaros said the Aurora Driving Park was located north of Illinois Avenue and west of Lake Street and had a one-half mile dirt oval horseracing track with grandstands. Jaros said along with horseracing, all of the major civic community functions were held at Aurora Driving Park, including circuses. Around 1910, demonstrations of Wright Brothers flyers were hosted as well, he said.

Jaros said the Aurora Downs had a “much longer standing” in Aurora as part of “The Great Exposition Park” located in North Aurora, west of Route 31 and north of Airport Road. Exposition Park, which had “the world’s largest swimming pool,” was also built to host the Central States Fair, a nine-state fair which ran in August of every year from 1922 to 1931.

Jaros said the racetrack was near the original site of Aurora Airport. He said from 1932 through 1938, it hosted the Illinois Derby, a race for thoroughbreds held in April each year.

“The track had many lives,” Jaros said, adding Aurora Downs would close and reopen under new ownership. Jaros said the original track in the 1920s and 1930s had a full mile oval, but when it reopened in 1946, it had a half-mile oval track.

Jaros showed old photographs of the exclusive clubhouse and crowds of spectators, mostly men, sporting traditional straw hats in 1925. A newspaper account reported more than 30,000 racing fans crowded the track in the height of the 1937 season.

Jaros said one of the officers of Exposition Park was Col. Edward Baker, of St. Charles, who owned a prize trotter named Greyhound who raced from 1934 through 1940 and won scores of races and set many records.

Another local connection involved John Oros, 16, who won his first professional race at Aurora Downs in 1938. In 1939, “The Aurora Flash,” as the jockey was known, won 162 races. His brother, George, also raced. The Oros brothers founded Oros Saddelry, which still operates today.

“The 1960s and 1970s were really a high time for racing in Illinois. It was one of the things that people liked to do — go out to the track and have a nice time,” Jaros said.

Jaros said 1976 was the last year Aurora Downs operated. An investor purchased the track in 1978 and attempted to get it going again as Fox Fields Track but encountered financial and union problems, as well as problems with the racing board. The last racing took place in 1981, Jaros said.

While off-track betting facilities exist today, Jaros noted how the horse racing industry might be on the verge of extinction, with wagering at its lowest since the 1970s and a steady decline in interest since the 1990s.

“After a very storied past, the future of the horseracing industry has a big question mark,” Jaros said.

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