O'Donnell: Will Duchossois retiring from Churchill board push Arlington Park closer to tilt?

THE FUTURE OF ARLINGTON PARK moved closer to the brink of uncertainty Thursday with confirmation that Dick Duchossois is retiring from the board of directors of parent company Churchill Downs Inc.

Duchossois, 97, has been on the board since he merged his racetrack with Churchill Downs in 2000. Son Craig Duchossois, 74, did not stand for re-election to the CDI board last spring.

Duchossois will remain chairman emeritus at AP with “an office for life.”

The announcement was made by Bill Carstanjen, CDI's wizardly CEO, during a quarterly investors call.

Carstanjen also reported that CDI's share of the Rivers Casino in Des Plaines has increased from 50.1 percent to “close to 62 percent.” The purchase — originally announced last fall — may be approved Friday at a meeting of the Illinois Gaming Board.

Duchossois has continued to show remarkable vitality. Last season, he made a visible concession to age by using a cane once owned by his mother.

The Duchossois family reportedly has made hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years by selling much of its CDI stock. A share sold for $23.27 at the time of the merger; it peaked close to $320 per-share last year before a 3-for-1 split effected in January.

Master behind it all has been Carstanjen — the 50-year-old golden boy pried away from Jack Welch and General Electric in 2005. His end-around in linking to facile Illinois power Neil Bluhm and the Des Plaines / Rivers operation was seen as a mating of two entities with significant synergies toward maximizing profits in the rabid Chicago-area gaming market.

Those synergies may not extend to a long future for live thoroughbred racing at Arlington. Under Carstanjen, CDI's upwardness is clearly pinned to polishing its trademark Kentucky Derby week in Louisville and expansion of casino, online and sports gaming interests.

As is, according to area commercial real estate experts, the Arlington complex would likely fetch $100-120 million as a teardown. The oval would be worth more if a thoroughbred racing “angel” were to descend.

Said Frank Calabrese, the winningest race owner of AP's new millennium and a significant Churchill stockholder since 1995: “Mr. D is a class act. But in any events moving forward, my money's on Carstanjen. He's simply a brilliant guy. And anyone who is still in horse racing is an idiot. Carstanjen keeps seeing the future before it happens and he's made a lot of shareholders a lot of money.”

A critical tell will be whether Carstanjen brings in new energies atop the AP totem. If he doesn't, the track will remain diminished by the sort of numbing repetitions that plagued Bill Murray's weather forecaster in “Groundhog Day.”

THE GREAT RED RUSH will be honored with the Father William A. Finnegan, S.J., Award at halftime of the Loyola-Bradley game Saturday (ESPN2, 5 p.m.) Son Casey Rush — a one-time all-state wide receiver at Prospect High, daughter Kathy Babcock and grandson Mike Babcock, head football coach at downstate McKendree University, will accept.

While Rush — who passed at age 81 in 2009 — was known for his relentless on-air energizers involving Gonnella Bread and phrases like “Swisheroo, he gets two,” he was even more colorful away from the play-by-play microphone.

Rush had two sleight-of-hand tricks — “the penny-dime” and “the quarter palm” — at which he was unbeatable. (“Elgin Baylor is the only man to ever beat me at the 'penny-dime,'” he once said.)

But his pièce de résistance was “The Blowfish.” Rush would get on his knees at the side of a table on which a dime and a pitcher of water or beer rested. He would then lip-lock the side of the table, blow hard and shoot the dime into the air and into the pitcher. He'd normally pump a bet against a newcomer by asking for three tries and intentionally missing the first two.

It was amazing restaurant theater. “He said (ex-White Sox pitching ace) Joel Horlen taught him that trick on a road trip in Texas,” Casey Rush said.

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Daily Herald file photoChairman Dick Duchossois pounds the ceremonial golden spike to comemmorate the new inner rail at The Arlington International Racecourse in May of 1989. The grandstand was rebuilt and opened that June after a devastating fire four years earlier.
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