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updated: 1/11/2017 9:37 AM

Former track co-owner who organized 'Miracle Million' dies at 78

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  • Sheldon and Barbara Robbins celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2013 at Arlington Park. Sheldon Robbins died Monday. He was 78.

    Sheldon and Barbara Robbins celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2013 at Arlington Park. Sheldon Robbins died Monday. He was 78.
    Courtesy of Larry Robbins

  • Sheldon and Barbara Robbins at Arlington Park for their 50th anniversary. Sheldon Robbins died Monday.

    Sheldon and Barbara Robbins at Arlington Park for their 50th anniversary. Sheldon Robbins died Monday.
    Courtesy of Larry Robbins

  • Sheldon Robbins won the Eclipse Award for his "herculean efforts" in pulling off the "Miracle Million" after the fire at Arlington Park in 1985. From left are Sheldon Robbins, Dick Duchossois, presenter John Forsythe, Joe Joyce and Ralph Ross.

    Sheldon Robbins won the Eclipse Award for his "herculean efforts" in pulling off the "Miracle Million" after the fire at Arlington Park in 1985. From left are Sheldon Robbins, Dick Duchossois, presenter John Forsythe, Joe Joyce and Ralph Ross.
    Courtesy of Larry Robbins

  • Sheldon Robbins died Monday at 78.

    Sheldon Robbins died Monday at 78.
    Courtesy of Larry Robbins

 
By Eileen O. Daday
Daily Herald correspondent

A former co-owner of Arlington Park credited with pulling off the "Miracle Million" after a devastating fire in 1985 has died.

Figures throughout the horse racing industry are mourning the loss of Sheldon Robbins, who died Monday at 78.

"He was the chief financial officer, and he ran the racetrack on a day-to-day basis," said Ralph Ross of Itasca, who with Robbins, Joe Joyce and Dick Duchossois formed a four-part ownership team that bought the racetrack in 1984.

"Sheldon was instrumental in the track turning a profit the first year we owned it," Ross added.

Robbins was a certified public accountant when he was recruited to work at the racetrack in 1972. At the time, Arlington was part of Madison Square Garden's Chicago operations and a subsidiary of Gulf & Western, which included two racetracks, two hotels and concessions and entertainment companies.

Over the next 11 years, Robbins rose from staff accountant to CFO of Arlington and the rest of its Chicago operations companies.

He would leave the track in 1983 to become president of Maywood Park, but he returned one year later as part-owner.

"I had only been to Arlington seven or eight times before we bought it," Duchossois said, "but Sheldon knew how to run a racetrack. He knew how to get things done."

Robbins worked with Joyce to launch the Arlington Million in 1981. They wanted to create a signature event and dared to dream of a million-dollar turf race that would take place in the summer and draw European horses.

"They wanted to elevate the level of racing in the Chicago and Arlington Heights areas," says Robbins' son, Larry. "They started the Arlington Million to turn Arlington Park into an international racing destination."

The track burned to the ground on July 31, 1985 -- less than a month before the Million. Joyce, Duchossois and Ross turned to Robbins to resurrect it.

The team worked around the clock to clear the rubble and build temporary stands to pull off the event, which was dubbed the "Miracle Million" and drew 35,000 fans.

"He knew how to get it done," Duchossois said. "We all had roles, but he was our quarterback. I can honestly say the Miracle Million never could have come off if it hadn't been for Sheldon."

Later that year, Robbins was recognized with the Eclipse Award, horse racing's highest honor, for his efforts and execution of the Million.

By 1986, Robbins and his partners had been bought out by Duchossois, who remains Arlington Park's chairman, but Robbins stayed on as a consultant overseeing the track's reconstruction.

Since retiring from the racetrack, Robbins lived in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he remained active in civic and philanthropic affairs. He also started Robbins Family Racing, which allowed him to purchase racehorses and keep his hand in the sport.

He and his wife, Barbara, a former substitute teacher in Wheeling Township Elementary District 21, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2013. The entire family gathered at Arlington Park, where they watched one of their horses race.

"Because of my father's involvement with Arlington, he became a lifelong horseman," Larry Robbins said. "His passion was racing."

Robbins is survived by his wife, Barbara, son, Larry (Sarahmay), daughter, Ellen (Paul) and six grandchildren.

Funeral services will take place at 10:30 a.m. Friday at the Robbins Family Sanctuary at Congregation Beth Judea, 5304 RFD in Long Grove.

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