Billy Johnston will be remembered as the most important and influential individual in the history of pari-mutuel harness racing in Illinois and a pillar of the sport in North America for a half century.
“I started working with Billy in 1965 and for the next 50 years we had a sometimes contentious but very successful relationship,” said Phil Langley, who served as USTA president from 2003-16. “In my opinion, the success of harness racing in Illinois was due to Billy’s promotional instincts and time after time coming up with new ideas.”
The man who left an indelible imprint on the sport died after a four-month battle with brain cancer at age 84 on March 26, 2020, at his winter home in Key Largo, Fla.
He is survived by his wife, Jane; their sons, John and William III (Duke), their daughter, Heather; a sister, Jewell Howell of Jacksonville, Fla.; seven grandchildren; and two great- grandchildren.
Born on Aug. 6, 1935, Johnston was a long-time resident of Hinsdale, Ill., a western suburb of Chicago.
“He was a genius in this industry,” said Illinois Circuit Court Judge Lorna Propes, a member of the Illinois Racing Board for 17 years starting in 1989 and its chairman from 2003-06.
Johnston’s 45 years of service as a USTA director was exceeded in longevity only by Corwin Nixon’s 47 years.
From the mid-1960s through 1997 Johnston headed the Chicago Downs Associations and Fox Valley Trotting Club meetings at Sportsman’s Park, firmly establishing it as one of the premier harness tracks in North America until the sport was discontinued in October 1997.
At times during the 1970s Sportsman’s harness meetings outhandled the matinee meeting at one of the nation’s premier Thoroughbred tracks, Arlington Park, located in the same metropolitan Chicago market.
“There is no denying that Sportsman’s is one of the most progressive tracks in the nation, striving to do its best for racing buffs and the Chicago racing community,” Jerry Connors wrote in the September 1984 issue of Hoof Beats.
The same could be said for Maywood Park and Balmoral Park when Johnston headed the chain-of-command at those Chicago circuit tracks.
In 1977 he put together the ownership group of Pat Flavin, Dick Roggeveen, Lester McKeever and Sid Anton that secured a long-term lease to race at Maywood. Early in 1987, under his leadership, members of that ownership group joined with Hawthorne Race Course owners Tom and Bob Carey and members of the family of the New York Yankees’ principal owner, George Steinbrenner, to buy Balmoral Park.
Originally all of the Chicago area track owner/operators were planning to pool their resources to buy Balmoral from Edward J. DeBartolo but then Arlington owner Dick Duchossois threw a curveball by announcing he had reached an independent agreement to buy the track.
Encouraged by his son, John, Johnston immediately contacted Steinbrenner, with whom he’d established a friendly relationship during visits to one of the four dog tracks he co-owned in Florida. Steinbrenner was eager to stay involved in racing. He had been a 48 percent owner of the Thoroughbred track Tampa Bay Downs before being outbid by his 52 percent partner, Stella Thayer, when they put the track up for auction in December 1986 and she then took control. When Johnston made the Balmoral pitch, he was receptive.
Steinbrenner’s family and a business associate invested 50 percent of the $8 million that Johnston offered DeBartolo for the track. DeBartolo felt he owed Steinbrenner a favor and pulled out of the deal with Duchossois.
While Steinbrenner had the reputation of being a control fanatic, he announced: “What we do at Balmoral is up to Billy Johnston. I’ll get him the sponsors. After that I don’t have anything to do with it.”
Later the Steinbrenner family bought out the Carey brothers’ shares in Balmoral and the holdings of Flavin and Roggeveen in Balmoral and Maywood.
“They worked together very well,” Roggeveen said of the Johnston/Steinbrenner partnership. “Billy knew the business through and through and Steinbrenner added a little more muscle. Billy loved the business. He was a natural for it and Phil Langley was hand in glove with Billy in everything.”
“I know it will surprise some but Billy was great to work with and very supportive, a good friend for many years,” Langley said.
Like Steinbrenner, former Illinois Governor Jim Edgar had great respect for Johnston.
“I enjoyed being around Balmoral,” said Edgar, who bred and owned Standardbreds and Thoroughbreds before and after his two terms as governor (1991-99). “Billy was probably as smart a businessman as anybody I ran into in the horse business. I always thought he was a resourceful guy to deal with.
“He knew what he had to do to make the tracks viable. He kept an eye on the bottom line so they could stay in business. He wasn’t going to give away any money; you knew that up front. At the same time you always knew he wouldn’t ask for everything. He’d be willing to compromise. If he had to do a compromise with the other tracks or the horsemen you knew he could work something out.
“I always found him to be a good person to have in racing.”
Johnston headed the hierarchy during the heyday of Illinois harness racing at Sportsman’s in the 1970s and later at Balmoral and Maywood from 1998 through 2015. With him at the helm, Maywood inaugurated its richest and most prestigious race, the Windy City Pace, in 1983 and hosted the inaugural Breeders Crown 2-year-old filly pace in 1984. The following year Sportsman’s was the site of the inaugural Breeders Crown older trot.
Johnston’s Sportsman’s and Maywood/Balmoral management teams conducted harness racing after pari-mutuel racing was introduced at the State Fairs at Du Quoin and Springfield and they inaugurated the state’s richest Standardbred race, the World Trotting Derby, in 1981 to replace the Hambletonian, which moved from its long-time home in Du Quoin to The Meadowlands that year. The $700,000 purse for the 1991 World Trotting Derby is an Illinois record that still stands.
‘They did a great job of running the fairs,” Judge Propes said. “They made those into national meets and did a lot of innovative things there to interest fans and push the industry forward. Billy was a true innovator, so prolific and always looking for something to improve.”
Year after year the American-National series races lured the finest horses in North America to Sportsman’s and later Balmoral, as did the Windy City Pace at Maywood and the World Trotting Derby and the World Trotting Derby Filly Division at Du Quoin (before they were discontinued following their 2009 renewals because of the state’s continuing budget crisis).
In 1988 Sportsman’s had 24 stakes races — 16 of which had purses of $100,000 or more — and stakes purses totaled $3.5 million.
The caliber of horses who came to Sportsman’s and Balmoral for the American-Nationals was significantly superior to that which Arlington and Hawthorne attracted for their graded stakes races for Thoroughbreds (with the exception of 1986 when the 13-day tent meeting at Arlington was the greatest in Illinois Thoroughbred history and in 2002 when it hosted the Breeders’ Cup).
Albatross in 1972 set his world record of 1:54.3 at Sportsman’s on his way to his second straight Horse of the Year title and such national brandnames as Rambling Willie, Falcon Seelster, Incredible Finale and Pacific later made it their home track.
When Sportsman’s introduced the Super Night stakes race extravaganza for Illinois-breds in 1989 it immediately became the biggest night of the year in Illinois harness racing.
Super Night’s great success continued at Balmoral after Sportsman’s ceased harness racing following its 1997 meeting for its brief and ill-fated $60 million transformation into an auto racing/Thoroughbred racing venue known as Chicago Motor Speedway.
The $3,777,549 bet on Super Night on Sept. 16, 2000 at Balmoral stands as the highest harness handle in the pari-mutuel history of the sport in Illinois that dates back to 1946 at Maywood.
“Billy was very persistent and very beneficial for racing in Illinois,” said Dr. Ken Walker, a former member of the USTA board of directors whose Walker Standardbreds is the state’s foremost Standardbred breeding farm. “Phil would throw stuff at him and Billy would take off with it.”
In 1992 Balmoral enhanced its stakes schedule by adding the tradition-rich Hanover Stakes, which had led a nomadic existence after being introduced at Lexington in 1947. Before being consolidated and finding a home at Balmoral divisions of the Hanover were raced at Liberty Bell, Freestate Raceway, The Meadows, Rosecroft Raceway and Meadowlands.
In 1995 Balmoral held races in conjunction with the World Driving Championships and its leading driver, Dave Magee, won the competition.
The emphasis on quality wasn’t confined to the major racing events.
After buying Balmoral, Johnston and his partners invested more than $10 million in renovations and upgrades. The clubhouse and grandstand were refurbished; the five-eighths-mile track was replaced with a one mile track; the hub rail was removed; a state-of-the-art lighting system was installed; and a new receiving barn and paddock were constructed adjacent to the grandstand to accommodate the 120 horses on a typical racing card.
“As a track operator Billy was par excellence,” remembered Lester McKeever, who went on to become president of Harness Tracks of America after partnering with Johnston in the Maywood and Balmoral ownership groups. “He wasn’t always easy to get along with but he was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful man of integrity. Integrity was so important to him.”
One of the measures Johnston took to ensure the integrity of the racing product was installation of a computerized diagnostic machine for pre-race testing for “milk-shaking,” the practice of tube-feeding a baking soda solution to horses about four hours before they race to block a buildup of lactic acid and thereby increase their resistance to fatigue by allowing access to oxygen reserves. Similar testing subsequently was adopted by other jurisdictions in the U.S. and Canada.
Johnston and Langley’s innovations set the stage for off-track betting parlors in Illinois.
At Sportsman’s in 1984 they pioneered inter-track simulcast betting with the Chicago Thoroughbred tracks.
Using the argument that off-track betting parlors would be an extension of the inter-track betting network by allowing each track to have two satellite facilities within a 35-mile radius of the parent track, Johnston was instrumental in persuading the legislature to legalize OTB making Illinois the first state where it wasn’t government-run. Balmoral opened the first parlor in Peoria in 1987.
In the fall of 1991 Maywood and Balmoral introduced dual-simulcasting on Friday and Saturday nights, a precursor to full-card simulcasting (that began in Illinois in 1995). The dual simulcasting programs at the mile track Balmoral would begin at 7:45 p.m., those at its little sister half-mile track Maywood would start at 8 p.m. and they would alternate races every 10 minutes until midnight.
Johnston also had Balmoral and Maywood rotating racing nights. In addition to Friday and Saturday, Balmoral would have programs on Sunday and Tuesday and Maywood would race on Monday and Wednesday.
This was in keeping with Johnston’s long-held conviction that racing six nights a week at the same location is detrimental to the sport.
“There are too many races and there are horses and horsemen who really can’t make a go of it,” Connors quoted him as saying in the 1984 Hoof Beats story. “We have to start emphasizing quality over quantity. Everybody has to cut back.”
Although calling for cutbacks sometimes put him in conflict with the leaders of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association, he earned the enduring respect of Mickey Izzo, currently projects manager of the Illinois Racing Board and formerly executive secretary of the IHHA.
“I was executive secretary of the IHHA from 1985-1998, I sat through many contract negotiations with him and what I can say about Billy was that he was tough but fair,” Ezzo said.
Illinois Racing Board member Tom McCauley had a similar experience when he served as the legal counsel for Arlington.
“I negotiated with him from time to time and I always liked him,” McCauley recalled. “Billy was a force of nature. Some people found that off-putting but it kind of energized me. He always was a straight shooter in negotiations. He did an awful lot for harness racing.”
One of the reasons Johnston knew all of the ins and outs of racing was because of his family background and because of his experience as a harness driver, owner, trainer and breeder.
His father, William Johnston Sr., was one of the founding fathers when the Hawthorne Kennel Club was remade into a Thoroughbred track in 1932 and renamed Sportsman’s Park. He went on to become president of Sportsman’s National Jockey Club in 1947 and served until 1967.
Sportsman’s was used exclusively for Thoroughbred racing until 1949 when it added harness racing (three years after Maywood inaugurated pari-mutuel betting on the sport in Illinois).
Langley’s father, Pete Langley, was a steward at the harness meeting and subsequently became a member of the track’s management team, working closely with Billy’s father in much the same way the sons started doing 20 years later and continued doing until 2015.
By the early 1950s Billy was showing up at the track with regularity. After high school he went to the University of Miami (Fla.), where he also furthered his racing education by frequenting the greyhound and Thoroughbred tracks during the winter. After graduating from Miami in 1957 he fulfilled what in the era of the draft was known as “his military obligation” in the Coast Guard and was discharged in 1961.
By then he was immersed in harness racing.
Johnston recalled in a Chicago Tribune interview that he drove “for about a dozen years,” winning his first race at Maywood and his last at Washington Park.
“That was before catch-driving became a big thing,” he said. “There were a lot of guys like me who drove their own horses.”
William H. Johnston Jr. first appears in the USTA archives as a driver in 1958 but he probably drove earlier because prior to that year only drivers with 25 or more purse starts had their information recorded.
The archives have him driving in 153 races from 1958 through 1966 and recording 20 triumphs, 13 seconds and 19 thirds and earning $22,047 in purses. By far his best year was 1958 when he won nine of 53 starts and had $8,329 in earnings.
“The first horse I had was Key Club,” he said. “It was around 1954. Del Miller sent her to me after she made breaks at Roosevelt Raceway. She was considered dangerous and unmanageable. I was told ‘put her nose on the gate and hold on’ and I did what I was told. She won and paid around $44 and her time was the fastest of the night but it was no great time.”
Stormy Bidwill succeeded the ailing William Johnston Sr. as president of the National Jockey Club in 1967. Thereafter Bidwill focused solely on Thoroughbred racing, while Billy Johnston continued to concentrate on harness racing with Langley (who became race secretary in 1964) working as his right hand man.
“Billy was an extremely good promoter and he got along well with all the big names in racing,” Langley said. “People don’t give him enough credit for all he did.”
Just as Billy Johnston followed his father into racing so did his sons, John and Duke.
After he moved up to chairman of the board in the 1990s John succeeded him as president of Balmoral and Duke succeeded him as president of Maywood. Like their father, both were innovators and they maintained the high standard of excellence that he had set during his years as a mover and shaker.
“Billy’s tentacles reached throughout the industry and he had a great deal of respect from everyone, knowing he was not a pushover but also knowing he was fair,” said his former partner McKeever. “His word was his bond.”
“Billy was very open-minded and very willing to come to self-examination,” said McCauley, speaking from both the perspective of his present position as a Racing Board member and his former position as Arlington’s attorney in which he often was an adversary at the bargaining table. “Billy would test ideas and he was thorough in his investigations.
“In my evaluation he was very, very good for Illinois racing. I can’t think of anyone who can take his place.”