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Rozner: Duchossois never doubted 'Miracle Million'

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  • Grand Marshal Richard Duchossois waves to the people along the parade route in Arlington Heights on Memorial Day last year.

      Grand Marshal Richard Duchossois waves to the people along the parade route in Arlington Heights on Memorial Day last year.
    Mark Welsh File photo/May 2014, mwelsh@dailyherald.com

 
 

At the time it seemed absurd.

Even now it sounds laughable if not impossible.

But so much about the life of Dick Duchossois has been improbable, and the "Miracle Million" was merely a small chapter in overcoming what those outside his inner circle would consider unmanageable.

Of course, this is a man who commanded a tank battalion through five major European campaigns during World War II -- including the Battle of the Bulge -- surviving under George Patton when the controversial general took the Third Army on a drive across France.

Duchossois suffered life-threatening injuries, yet escaped the hospital to fight again, earning two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart.

It explicates much about the Duchossois personality that the Arlington chairman marches on at 93, running a corporation worth billions and maintaining a hands-on approach that often shames those around him who don't possess his boundless energy and passion.

And it goes a long way toward explaining why he did not quit when Arlington Park burned down 30 years ago.

On the contrary, his immediate response was to start asking questions and getting answers.

It is the essence of Duchossois that he engineered the Miracle Million a few weeks after the building was reduced to ashes, when nearly everyone thought he was reacting emotionally and perhaps the cheese had slid off his cracker.

The fire at Arlington Park began in the early morning of July 31, 1985, and by the afternoon there was no Arlington Park. Among the casualties would most certainly be the Arlington Million, the track's signature race and the centerpiece of summer turf racing in America at the time.

Only one man immediately began to think of how to save the race, and on Aug. 4 Duchossois gathered the troops and began explaining how they would clean up the facility, erect temporary stands, allow fans on the infield and run the race three weeks later.

"It was still burning when I got there about 3 a.m., and two things came to mind right away," Duchossois said Saturday. "The first was we will rebuild as fast as we can. The second was we have to run the Million. It had to be done.

"They looked at me as if I was out of my head. They had all come from different trades and they had never built a company from scratch. But I knew that once you start quitting, you'll always quit.

"The fire was just another roadblock."

It would take a superhuman effort by a crew of hundreds, working nearly 24 hours a day to clear the debris and create a makeshift facility capable of supporting a massive crowd.

"You have to understand that we made a commitment and we would keep our commitment," Duchossois said. "We had horses coming from Europe, people making flight and hotel arrangements. They had training schedules and businesses to run.

"They were depending on us and we couldn't just say, 'Sorry, we have no track.' Our job was to run the race or die trying."

In 21 days, 28,000 pounds of twisted steel and rubble was carted away and work was halted each day at 4 a.m. for four hours so horses could train. About 275,000 square feet of blacktop was formed to hold a tent city and support patrons and employees.

"Maybe it was a little bit of stupidity on my part to think we could do this," Duchossois laughed, "but it never dawned on me that we couldn't.

"The knee-jerk reaction of many was that it couldn't be done, but we put a plan in place quickly and everyone had their responsibility and everyone did their jobs.

"The spirit of the workers was special. They wanted to make this happen and each person took care in getting it done. There was no delaying and no questions. We had a job to do and we did it."

The spirit of the patrons was equal on Aug. 25, 1985. I was on the infield, among the 35,000 on hand, though I didn't have Teleprompter, the British winner for Lord Derby, whose colors were -- appropriately -- Soot Black and Ash White.

Arlington Park had pulled off the impossible on a glorious Sunday afternoon, and for that was rewarded with racing's highest honor. It was the first time a track received the Eclipse Award, "In recognition of the indomitable spirit of the officers and staff for a 'Miracle.' "

To this day, however, the man who put it in motion, charged the groups and executed the plan is unmoved by the enormity of the project and the speed with which it was completed, though it remains for patrons as grand a memory as there's been in nearly 90 years of racing at Arlington Park.

"When you walk away from an obligation, you learn to do it over and over again," Duchossois said. "The opposite is also true.

"I knew we could get it done and it took a lot of great people to do it, but I wasn't surprised that we asked them to do it and they got it done."

A bold commander could have asked nothing less.

brozner@dailyherald.com

• Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM.

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