Duchossois keeps steady pace
Arlington Park Chairman Richard Duchossois at the race track in April. | Ruthie Hauge~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 4, 2012 10:45AM
It’s a chill, overcast day in late April and Barrington Hills resident Richard Duchossois, chairman of Arlington Park, has a full schedule. It’s only nine days until the track’s seasonal re-opening, as prominently displayed on a countdown sign in the corner of the administrative offices, and the 90-year-old Duchossois’ morning agenda includes an interview for the local newspaper, a political meeting, and taste-testing of food that will be served in the track’s restaurants this year. Fresh from a staff meeting, he approaches at a brisk pace, offers a firm handshake, and settles behind his desk, sitting ramrod straight.
It’s a year of milestones for the track, including the 85th anniversary of its founding and the 30th running of its signature race, the Arlington Million, the world’s first million-dollar Thoroughbred race, and after 29 years at the helm, Duchossois remains in the thick of things.
From first buying the track with a trio of partners in 1983, through buying out those partners in 1986 after a fire destroyed the grandstand, rebuilding the facility, closing the track for the 1998 and 1999 seasons until legislation favorable to the racing industry was passed, to hosting the 2002 Breeders’ Cup World Championships, it’s been a wild ride, but not something Duchossois would describe as work.
“No, it’s a lot of fun and a lot of challenge,” he said.
It’s also personal. “I’m not a racetracker,” Duchossois said. “I don’t even bet on the horses.” Why then, does he keep showing up for work six or seven days a week?
“Well, we owned the track when it burned down,” he said. “Our partners wanted to take the insurance money, but my family and I felt since it was such a strong economic engine for the community, we owed it to the community to rebuild.”
But don’t think he’s all sentiment. Duchossois is a savvy businessman to the bone. He claims his only regret about rebuilding the track was that he didn’t get a promise in writing to keep the property’s real estate taxes at pre-fire levels.
“I was naïve. I’ll never make that mistake again,” he said.
Citing that approximately 90 percent of all pari-mutuel wagering is now done away from the racetracks, Duchossois says that Arlington is looking at new electronic means of distributing its product and reaping betting dollars.
And a firm believer in marketing worldwide, he announced that the track will change its name back to Arlington International Racecourse this year, a moniker used from 1989 to 2000, to highlight a commitment to the international racing scene. Also, a new stakes race has been added to the schedule on Million Day, Aug. 18.
The Arlington St. Leger, named after the third leg of England’s Triple Crown, offers a $400,000 purse that is paid for with money from casino impact fees that are a result of the late 1990s legislation pushed for by Duchossois.
But as the owner of Hill ‘n’ Dale Farm, a Thoroughbred breeding and racing enterprise headquartered at his Barrington Hills property, Duchossois is also a member of the local racing fraternity, which is often at odds with tracks over revenue sharing.
“I believe that this year we’re either going to make or break the entire Illinois racing industry,” he said. In describing the roles of the tracks and horsemen in the endeavor, he said, “If we’re all united, singing the same song, on the same page, no one is trying to have oneupsmanship on the other, we’ll get the job done.”
The steely survivor of a World War II gunshot wound, heart and hip surgeries and cancer, Duchossois claims the key to his vitality is to not fret about his health and to keep busy.
But in his only nod to his nonagenarian status, he says that he’s cutting down on the number of horses he’s breeding on his farm.
“It takes so long to breed them, get them to the track and running, that I’m buying those that can already run so I can see them,” he said. “I’m not going to be able to lift the top of the box and look out there and see them,” he added with a chuckle.