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updated: 5/2/2014 5:22 PM

25 years after rebuilding, Arlington begins another season

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  • Video: Duchossois on the Anniversary

  • Arlington International Racecourse Chairman Richard Duchossois talks about the upcoming season and the 25th anniversary of the track's reopening after the fire.

       Arlington International Racecourse Chairman Richard Duchossois talks about the upcoming season and the 25th anniversary of the track's reopening after the fire.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Arlington International Racecourse Chairman Richard Duchossois talks about upcoming season and 25th anniversary of the track's reopening after the fire.

       Arlington International Racecourse Chairman Richard Duchossois talks about upcoming season and 25th anniversary of the track's reopening after the fire.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Fire consumes the world-class horse racing track on July 31, 1985.

      Fire consumes the world-class horse racing track on July 31, 1985.
    Daily Herald file photo

  • The new Arlington Park is ready for racing in 1989 after a fire destroyed the original in 1985.

      The new Arlington Park is ready for racing in 1989 after a fire destroyed the original in 1985.
    Daily Herald File Photo

 
 

It was a sunny, crowded day in July 1989 when the new Arlington Park opened its doors for the first time after a major fire destroyed the Arlington Heights racing icon four years earlier.

"Twenty-five years seems like yesterday, but I guess that means I'm 25 years older," said Richard Duchossois, the 92-year-old chairman of the Arlington Heights track that is now owned by Churchill Downs.

"It's the shortest 25 years I've ever spent, but that's because I've been here every day," said Duchossois on the eve of the 2014 racing season set to begin today.

The reopening was the culmination of a few years of quick, but hard, work to rebuild what the July 31, 1985, fire took as a modern racing palace.

"After the track burned, we didn't have anything," Duchossois remembered. "It was 100 percent destroyed, and then some."

But a few short weeks later, organizers got the debris cleaned up enough to run the annual Arlington Million, dubbed by the media at the time as the "Miracle Million."

"People said it couldn't be done," Duchossois said.

During cleanup from the fire, Duchossois had a difference of opinion with his partners.

"They wanted to take the insurance money and get out," he said. "But my family felt like we had an obligation to rebuild what had been destroyed. We were the racing kingpin in Illinois; we were an economic engine in this community. It was essential to rebuild."

He closed the door on the old track and started over, even getting rid of old blueprints and interrupting conversations about "the way things used to be."

"We didn't want people influenced by what it was before. We wanted to start fresh," Duchossois said.

"I didn't know anything about tracks," he admitted.

So he and a group of architects traveled to racetracks around the country and talked to customers.

They wanted to build a track the customers wanted, not one that consultants said would be successful.

"We went in the opposite direction of what most other tracks in the country were doing, and it worked for us," he said. "If we don't have customers, we don't have anything."

The had to fight the stigma around horse racing and racetrack gambling.

"Racing was for old men, the tracks were considered dirty. We needed to change the image," Duchossois said. "We built the track for families and for the customers we wanted to attract."

Many of those customers were women. At the time racing was not as popular among women as men, but Duchossois said it became a goal to attract women to the track. The top priorities in the rebuilding were to make the track fun, clean and safe.

Now more than 50 percent of the customers at Arlington International Racecourse are women, he said.

The rebuilding was fast-tracked and Arlington opened a short 18 months after construction began.

"We were working 20-hour days, every day to get it done," he remembered. "When everyone tells you it can't be done, and you do it, that's a pretty good feeling."

Opening day was chaotic, but exciting, Duchossois said.

His first thought was that they had built the park too small because so many people had come to the reopening celebration that it was overflowing.

"It made us all feel like we were on cloud nine. Most of us hadn't gotten much sleep and there were a lot of emotions," he remembered. "Police were directing traffic, it was so backed up. We weren't prepared for such a large crowd, but the whole area was electric."

At the time, the design of the grandstand was modern and ahead of its time, one that Duchossois said has held up well over the years.

"No one has ever built a track anywhere in the world in the years since we reopened where the architects haven't come to look at ours first and talk about concepts," he said.

Even that large overhanging cantilever roof was built with the customers in mind, he said.

"We talked to people and they said they didn't like having to sit behind pillars, so we don't have pillars in the middle of the stands," he said.

Although the past quarter-century seems to have gone quickly for Duchossois, he admits that times have changed since the big reopening.

Now the track is competing with casinos in Des Plaines and other suburbs. Track officials are in a yearslong battle with the governor and state legislature about the effort to get slot machines at Arlington, which they say would level the playing field.

The track is also competing with other entertainment venues in the city and the suburbs for the fewer discretionary dollars people are willing to spend, and trying to attract younger customers who didn't grow up watching horse racing.

But Duchossois said he looks forward to the start of the 2014 season with as much excitement as every year.

"The excitement comes with all of those challenges, though, and being able to get through them," Duchossois said. "Without competition we wouldn't have anything to push us forward. No one gives you success. You have to go out and get it."

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