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updated: 10/10/2011 4:56 AM

Arlington owner Duchossois, at 90, fights cancer and for his track

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  • Arlington Park owner Richard Duchossois says he has strategies in place to keep the racetrack going whether it gets slots or not. Industry watchers are skeptical.

       Arlington Park owner Richard Duchossois says he has strategies in place to keep the racetrack going whether it gets slots or not. Industry watchers are skeptical.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Arlington Park owner Richard Duchossois, at 90, doubts he'll retire. "I'm going to retire when they close the box, I think. But you never know."

       Arlington Park owner Richard Duchossois, at 90, doubts he'll retire. "I'm going to retire when they close the box, I think. But you never know."
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Arlington Park owner Richard Duchossois, even with plenty of assistants at his disposal, prefers to do his own scheduling and works through the paperwork that comes onto his desk.

       Arlington Park owner Richard Duchossois, even with plenty of assistants at his disposal, prefers to do his own scheduling and works through the paperwork that comes onto his desk.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Arlington Park owner Richard Duchossois regularly walks around the track and leaves pink notes for his employees -- who know they mean something isn't up to snuff.

       Arlington Park owner Richard Duchossois regularly walks around the track and leaves pink notes for his employees -- who know they mean something isn't up to snuff.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Duchossois on surviving war, life in business

 
 

First of two parts

The pink paper notes are never a good sign.

Employees at Arlington Park -- from the ticket agents and ushers to wait staff and groundskeepers -- know they're from the boss, left as he's walking the racetrack's grounds.

They know it means he's probably not pleased.

"Appearance translates. I learned that in the Army," Arlington Park Chairman Richard Duchossois says. "If you let your troops get sloppy, you can't count on them. And therefore they aren't good soldiers. The same holds true in business."

At 90 and being treated for cancer, Duchossois' focus now is on teaching those around him to carry on -- with perfection -- the business empire he has worked decades to build.

It doesn't mean he's letting go. Far from it.

"If you stop once, then you really don't get started again. You get too contented," Duchossois says in his trademark staccato, his sentences sharply punctuated. "I'm going to retire when they close the box, I think. But you never know."

"Mr. D," the Barrington business tycoon and chairman of Arlington Park, is still a daily presence at the track, in suit, suspenders and tie, working through the stacks of paperwork neatly piled on tables, desks and chairs in his first-floor office. He still does his own scheduling despite a host of secretaries at his disposal.

And he leaves those handwritten notes for employees who might be able to do things differently, better.

His way.

Duchossois, not one to relinquish control, is fighting on two different fronts -- for his own health, and for the future of the Arlington Heights racetrack he says someday could be the last one standing in Illinois.

The industry has pinned its hopes on a complicated piece of gambling legislation that would increase revenues by allowing slot machines at racetracks. The industry needs that boost very badly, Duchossois says.

But Arlington would survive if the legislation didn't pass, he says. "Why wouldn't it?" he bristles when asked.

As for the health front, "it's pretty well under control now," he says, tracing his finger over his stomach, indicating where the cancer has returned after a few years' remission. "But we are what we are."

On this morning, a few weeks after one surgery and a few weeks away from beginning a new round of treatment, Duchossois is angry and befuddled.

The Illinois Racing Board voted, the day before, not to grant Arlington the 2012 schedule it desired, thus putting night racing next year at Arlington in jeopardy.

His hands are folded, but he is clearly agitated, pinkies thumping on the boardroom table as he speaks, looking out west across the racetrack's sprawl.

He had been so upset that he went home and wrote down all of his thoughts following the meeting, before deciding he should sleep on it, before saying -- or doing -- anything rash.

Age and experience have taught him that.

"I learned when you're fighting," says Duchossois, who drove tank destroyers in Normandy during the second World War. "You learned to keep your mouth shut. You've got to build a pride in your organization, but you don't knock the other guy. You don't let your ego get ahead of his decision-making."

A second birthday

Duchossois never liked school. It was competition that held his attention.

It still does.

"Some people like golf, some people like ping pong, I just like whatever's competitive," he says. "I've probably always been that way. In grammar school when I would play tag and those games, I'd want to be the fastest."

At Morgan Park Military Academy on Chicago's South Side, he says, he wasn't "satisfied," but he nevertheless entered college after he got into Washington and Lee University and Dartmouth University, choosing the former because he didn't know anyone at Dartmouth.

College, he recalls now, was the only time in his life when he had spare time, but that drove him crazy more than anything. He wanted action.

He was eager to take on the world.

With the country at war, Duchossois, 19, was called to Army service, training in Texas to drive tank destroyers.

It was what he calls "accidental assignment" -- a theme, he says, that continued throughout his life.

After marrying his high school sweetheart from the neighborhood, Beverly, Duchossois headed abroad, beginning the first of five European campaigns in 1941.

On Sept. 15, 1944, on a bridgehead on the Moselle River, his company was overrun. Driving a partially uncovered tank, he was shot clean across his side.

The prognosis, at first, appeared so grim that his body was lined up alongside the others marked for dead at a field hospital.

"They sort of line up those that aren't going to make it and those that are," Duchossois says. "I got in the 'won't make it' side and somehow or other I must have wiggled my toes or something and they put me on the other."

From that day forward he told himself that he started life all over again, and since then, has celebrated two birthdays -- Sept. 15 and Oct. 7 -- every year.

'Going to excel'

Returning home as a major, Duchossois in 1946 went to work in his wife's father's business, Thrall rail car manufacturers, at the time a 38-man operation headquartered on 26th Street in Chicago Heights.

With a baby -- the couple's firstborn son, Craig -- now in the picture, the family business seemed like the most logical way to make a living.

Nearly 60 years later, he still keeps prominently on his desk a picture of the tiny, green-sided tinderbox of an office he worked from. Wife Beverly, he recalls with a chuckle, used to get mad at him when he worked from home, pushing tacks into the kitchen table.

By 1952, he became CEO, a position he held for more than 25 years, when his wife and her brother together inherited the business.

"He was just the greatest guy in the world," Duchossois says of his brother-in-law. "But, he loved to golf and he loved to travel, and I wanted to build a company. So I bought him off.

"All I knew was whatever we were going to do, we were going to excel in it -- and we did. We took it from a little 86-man operation to the second-largest rail car manufacturer in the world."

Accidental horseman

Along with the $2 billion
Duchossois Group, a conglomerate of residential security, automation and digital media companies privately held by the Duchossois family, Duchossois is most often associated with Arlington Park, which he has owned since 1983.

But entry into the horse racing business, he says, was purely accidental.

"Beverly and I, we weren't horse racing people."

The family first got a horse as a bribe to youngest son Bruce, who, in middle school, was bringing home a string of stray dogs and cats, as well as a string of bad report cards.

After Beverly died from cancer in 1980, Duchossois traveled to the Kentucky Derby, where he had a chance encounter with Arlington's then-president Joe Joyce and Sheldon Robbins, who ran the track at the time.

"I was single then, and I had maybe a beer or two too many," says Duchossois, who started considering taking part in a purchase.

When it came time to buy the track in 1983, Joyce and Robbins couldn't come up with the money. So, Duchossois says, he sold them 5 percent apiece.

A 'Miracle Million'

Arlington's white, gleaming grandstand, with marbled floors and shiny golden doorknobs, wasn't always that way.

The racetrack Duchossois bought was wooden and outdated. It seemed more suited for men "chomping on cigars, spitting on the floor, and cheating a bit. Not too safe."

That would all change in a flash.

At a July 31, 1985, party in Flossmoor he attended with actress Phyllis Diller, who was slated to appear on Oprah Winfrey's show the next day, Duchossois got a call from Joyce.

There was a little fire at the track, Joyce told him, but not to worry. It would be put out.

An hour later, Duchossois got another call.

The fire was raging out of control.

"They were trying to save the thing," Duchossois said. "But I got here and it was pretty much gone. ... If they started putting the thing out then (I thought we needed to) throw some gasoline to make up for it. I wanted it to go to the ground. They all wanted to save it. Because you can't rebuild something that's half burned down. Every time it rains, it'd get that burned-down smell. It just wouldn't be right."

The Arlington Million was less than a month away, but Duchossois was determined to run the race.

And somehow he did.

Thanks to a workforce that worked around the clock clearing debris and erecting tents, the "Miracle Million" went off with nary a hitch.

Duchossois rebuilt the track for $200 million in 18 months, sparing no expense. Having bought out the other investors, he was solely in charge.

The new track, he says, was really built "for the women" -- clean and safe, with more washrooms than code suggested, and its Million Room requiring a dress code.

"He's constantly focused. He's a visionary," racehorse owner Rob Marchocchio of Rolling Meadows says of Duchossois, who merged Arlington with Churchill Downs Inc. in 2000.

"You saw that when the track burned down and getting a vision of what would replace that disaster. So he's a visionary in seeing a new track and a new future," says Marchocchio, who has known Duchossois for three decades.

But will the vision endure?

Arlington, today the jewel in the crown of an Illinois industry tottering on the brink, has spent the past 15 years fighting with lawmakers to give the industry a "shot in the arm," as Duchossois puts it.

With legislation waiting in limbo, Duchossois is employing a number of strategies to make sure racing continues at Arlington, slots or not.

Not everyone is convinced it will work.

"The death of the racetrack is within our sight if this bill doesn't go through," Marcocchio said.


• Coming Monday: Duchossois believes Arlington could be the state's last remaining track. He talks about his plans to ensure it stays in business.

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