William A. Thayer Jr., a longtime racing executive whose connections in the sport extended well beyond the backstretch at Arlington International Racecourse, died Tuesday morning at a rehabilitation facility in Rolling Meadows. He was 89.
"He was always a mainstay at Arlington until the last couple of years," said Dave Kassen, a former jockey and trainer living in Florida who was friends with Thayer since 1959, and a regular at Arlington Park almost annually since 1979. "He had a big following. He was pretty well liked by the horsemen. He was well liked and respected."
Thayer's ties to Arlington Park date back to the mid-1960s when the track was operated by Marje Everett. After the 1970 season, he joined the Illinois Racing Board as an administrative assistant. In 1972, he was back at Arlington, leaving his job as vice president and general manager of Finger Lakes in New York. In all, he worked 49 years at Arlington as the track changed ownership several times.
In 1973, he helped score one of the biggest coups in Arlington history: bringing Secretariat to Arlington Park three weeks after the fabled horse was the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years.
The race was run on June 30, 1973 and billed as "The Arlington Invitational," which Secretariat won by nine lengths with ABC's "Wide World of Sports" airing the event to a national audience, and more than 40,000 in attendance.
"That (Secretariat appearance) was a very big deal," Kassen said, "and Bill was the one responsible for it.
As John Leusch reported in a Daily Herald story years later, there were better offers for Secretariat to run elsewhere, but legendary owner Penny Chenery and trainer Lucien Lauren accepted the offer from Thayer, whom they considered a friend.
"That was a huge event," said Tom Morgan, a jockey agent for 39 years. "I've seen pictures of that event, have heard accounts, and I knew a jockey that rode in that race and he said it was the biggest thing he'd ever seen."
Morgan, who lives in Rolling Meadows, considered Thayer was "the insider's insider" and a great administrator.
"If you wanted to know something, or had to have something done, he had the biggest phone book (of contacts) I have ever seen," Morgan said. "He knew everyone."
Connie Thayer, his wife from 1997-2014, said his sporting legacy will be "the friendship he had with horsemen, (including the) owners and trainers … horse racing and Arlington Park, yes, that was his life."
Not surprisingly, Thayer was the inaugural recipient of the Arlington Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011.
Connie said he was "a kind, generous man who was always willing to reach out and help anyone."
Particularly those in Boys Town, the small suburb of Omaha, Neb., dedicated to the care, treatment and education of at-risk children. Thayer, an orphan who lived at Boys Town, was a large donor and supporter of the community, and he brought others along too to support it, Connie said.
"He did a lot of goodwill for Boys Town," Connie said.
Thayer's grandson, Carl Fess, 27, lived with him in Rolling Meadows for about the past year. Thayer was a "generous" man, Fess said.
"Anyone who needed something, he was there to help, in one way or another." Fess said. "He was demanding of his family to go as far as we can, and that was with (his) love. He loved us and wanted what was best for us."
Thayer is also survived by his daughter, Phyllis Fess, and three grandchildren.
Services for Thayer will be held at 11 a.m. Oct. 9 at St. Colette's in Rolling Meadows, with a visitation between 9 and 10:30 a.m. Oct. 9 at Meadows Funeral Home.