Constable: Duchossois has fond memories, hope for what's next at Arlington Park
His heart and soul are a part of Arlington Park, but Dick Duchossois says he's fine with the new owners selling the horse-racing palace he made that is an institution in Arlington Heights.
"We built it," Duchossois, 99, said during a telephone interview Monday from the Barrington Hills equestrian estate where he lives with his wife, Judi. The man synonymous with Arlington Park poured millions into the track he bought in 1983, and millions more into a glorious rebuild after a devastating fire in 1985, before merging his creation with Churchill Downs in 2000. But he has no regrets that the 326 acres, including the 94-year-old track, are for sale and destined to be developed into something else.
"I think Churchill has two of the finest managers in the country," said Duchossois, who says he got briefed on the reasons for the sale and details. "It's been explained to me, and I don't understand it, but I agree with it."
He recognizes the role his Arlington Park plays in the village, which incorporated a horse's head in the shape of the letter A on the official village seal.
"It's almost like a statue in the village," Duchossois said of Arlington Park. "But on the other hand, statues get knocked down, too."
The colorful and charismatic billionaire, who founded The Duchossois Group investment company and Duchossois Capital Management, gives much of the credit for the racetrack's success to his son, Craig Duchossois, who is chairman and CEO of The Duchossois Group. But the elder Duchossois never stops working, except when his health limits him.
"When I go to bed at night, I don't know if I'll wake up," said Duchossois, whose 100th birthday is in October.
"I've had so many wonderful memories," Duchossois says of his years at Arlington Park, but his greatest memory comes in the wake of the devastating and spectacular all-day fire on July 31, 1985, which burned the grandstand and clubhouse.
"The memory I have most is of the day after the fire," Duchossois says. In the shadow of the smoldering rubble, workers spent that day on tractors grooming the track for what would become the "Miracle Million" race held just a few weeks later. Duchossois had a framed photograph of that scene hanging in his plush rebuilt grandstand with "Quit? Hell NO!" written on the photo.
It took four years before the rebuilt grandstand could be opened, but Duchossois says the fire doesn't haunt him.
"Bear in mind, I'm old. I had more and bigger battles in Europe, where I got used to being knocked around," says Duchossois, who commanded the 610th Tank Destroyer Battalion as a major under Gen. George Patton during World War II. Duchossois was awarded two Bronze Stars and was temporarily paralyzed after being shot in the side and earning a Purple Heart.
"There's a big difference between fighting in Normandy and starting out at a little place with 37 employees," says Duchossois, comparing his Army service with his early days in the racetrack business.
"I've always worked to please our customers. There's nothing we have done there that hasn't been built for the customers," Duchossois says. "We always did what was best for the village, for the people."
He's not sure whoever buys the track after the 2021 season will share that sentiment, but that's not his business.
"I have nothing to say about it," Duchossois says when asked if he'd like to see the land become a sports stadium for the Chicago Bears or other team, a corporate campus, a golf course, an entertainment venue or another condo development. "Before we bought it that same talk was going on. It still is."
He says he hopes whatever takes the place of his enterprise will be a positive addition to the community.
"It's great to see anything grow," he says. "What makes the customer happy will always be rewarded."
But he can't bring himself to predict the future.
"I never visualized it being gone," Duchossois says of Arlington Park. "So I never visualize anything else being there."