11th annual Harold Zahn Purple Heart Memorial set for Balmoral Park
Thursday, March 29, 2012 – by Dale Zahn
Crete, IL — The Harold Zahn Purple Heart Memorial Race will be presented at Balmoral Park on Saturday (April 14).
It all began shortly after Harold (my dad) passed away in 2002. It was meant to be a simple family gathering to keep the memory of Harold alive at the racetrack he spent so many hours at during his retirement years.
After serving four years as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne division during World War II, Harold returned home to Illinois and quickly became active in the Military Order of The Purple Heart. He never failed to express his patriotism.
Many nights after club meetings he and other veterans, all Purple Heart recipients, would end up at Washington Park Race Track in Homewood, Ill., to enjoy the last few races on the nightly program. When Balmoral opened up in the late 1960s he and I were there on opening night and we were fixtures ever since.
Harold, a resident of Park Forest, never owned horses; he just had a fondness for harness racing, the blue collar answer to Thoroughbred racing, which was known as the “Sport of Kings.” Unfortunately, Harold died before ever knowing that I would someday own a few trotters and would be a licensed amateur driver in the sport.
My wife LaVonne has said many times, “Harold would have absolutely loved it!”
Aside from being a fan, the closest Harold got to the sport was having painted famed Illinois driver Harry Burright’s helmet one time and he did get to listen to my radio program, “Harness Happenings,” that aired on several Chicago area radio stations in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Having retired from the building department in the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, Harold occupied much of his time with his wife Marian and when they were not enjoying time with their children and grandchildren, he’d be doing the two things he enjoyed most — playing golf by day and going to the racetrack at night.
He was a huge fan of the races; in fact he was in his usual seat at Balmoral just a few days before his death and when he passed a live betting voucher was in his shirt pocket. I had to take it to the racetrack to cash it.
The first Zahn Memorial Race was held on the weekend of Harold’s 80th birthday in April 2002 and was attended by family members who presented the winning horse and driver with a Purple and White blanket in the winner’s circle. In the years that followed, awareness of the race grew and family members were joined by friends and dignitaries from six different states. Keenly aware of Harold’s love of country and how proud he was of his Purple Hearts, my wife and I decided to make the race a recognition to all Purple Heart veterans.
For a number of years, Harold’s first granddaughter, Mandy, performed the national anthem and schedule permitting it’s hoped that once again this year she’ll be joined in the winner’s circle prior to the races by a color guard of Purple Heart veterans as the anthem is presented. Mandy Z and her band, Rural Route 1, will be appearing live at the racetrack later this year, outside on the apron.
At race time, as I have from year one, I will have the privilege of announcing the post parade as horses and drivers appear on the Crete racetrack and I’ll explain briefly the reason behind the event for viewers across the simulcasting network and those attending the races live at the track.
It’s hard to imagine we’ve been doing this for 11 years now and when we go to the clubhouse we can still visualize Harold sitting there with his racing programs, cup of hot coffee and his smokes. This is just a small way we can honor a dad, grandfather, husband, race fan and most of all an American patriot, and because of him we’ve chosen as well to recognize and say thank you to all Purple Heart veterans.
The live racing program starts at 7:10 p.m. on April 14th at Balmoral Park.
Dad is buried just 10 minutes away from the racetrack and I believe that he will be watching, wagering and enjoying the festivities from the great racetrack in the sky.