Arlington Park's Duchossois, 95, plans retirement -- at 100
At 95, Arlington Park Chairman Dick Duchossois hasn't lost his tight grip on the racetrack, which will celebrate its 90th year this season. But his age has given the Barrington Hills business tycoon pause to reflect on challenges for the horse racing industry, upcoming plans to retire and how he wishes he'd learned more from his youngest son, who died of cancer. Here's an edited transcript of that interview.
Q. How does it feel to be 95?
A. I don't know how you're supposed to feel at 95, but I feel fine. I feel as good as I did at 65. I had my first heart operation in 1981. It hasn't been that smooth, but if you stop and think about it that's what makes it rough. So I just don't think about it. I started out trying to exercise, but there was always a meeting or something. I try to exercise when I can.
Q. You lost your son Bruce to cancer in 2014. Can you talk about how that might have changed your perspective on things?
A. Bruce was sort of a balancing effect in the family. He loved his animals, he loved his horses and he enjoyed horse shows around the world. He lived his own life and he was kind and gentle to everyone, and I should have learned more from him. He would have made me a better person if I'd followed what Bruce was doing. I can't think of anyone I learned more from than I did from Bruce. Bruce didn't have a cross word in him; he controlled his temper. He had friends from all over the world. He left money to everyone down to the grooms (who took care of the horses) he had. He's left a big piece of land to the city of Aiken, South Carolina, and part of it will be called Bruce's Park in his memory. We're going down there in about a week where they're dedicating a bronze statue to him. I'm trying to live the way he lived.
Q. You have said Arlington needs help from Springfield badly and that the horse racing industry is close to being destroyed. How much longer can horse racing keep going in Illinois without the passage of gambling expansion legislation?
A. All I can say is shortly. Now, does shortly mean three years or is it five years? The future is not too far out. The people who are doing the breeding, they can't make any money, they can't sell their horses because their horses can't win (much). If they can't have good purses, the farther the quality goes down, the less wagers increase. We're destroying ourselves. We have no options.
Q. Along with slots, how much do you feel the addition of table games could help Arlington?
A. Table games will put us back in competition. We absolutely need table games. Table games will give us twice the amount of money for purses we'd have with just the slots. Our competitors have them. We have to stay competitive.
Q. Some drafts of gambling legislation would add casinos in Rockford, Lake County and Chicago. Are you working collaboratively with officials from those places or do you see them as competitors?
A. The more gaming we have in a concentrated marketplace, the more we'll expand. We're not eating each other's bread. Gaming is here to stay, but a lot of Illinois people are leaving the state. We're doing everything we conceivably can to make Arlington a public entertainment facility. We have weddings here, we have entertainment here, we're trying to bring people in. If you're putting it out for strictly gaming, we would have gone under before.
Q. How do you think Arlington is doing compared to other tracks across the country?
A. Churchill Downs is doing very well. They're expanding very fast, doing more and more. We started talking back in the '90s that there were too many racetracks and not enough horse farms to supply them. There's almost none in Illinois now because they can't make a living. The quality is going down because the money isn't there to justify the investment of the horses and the farms. The whole industry is changing, not because we want to but because we're forced to. At Arlington, we're newer. When the track burned (in 1985), we wanted to do a little something different. We were building for women. Because if women feel if it's clean and safe, they're going to bring the kids out. We're probably the only track in the country that has more women patrons than men. We're loaded with youngsters because we have the ponyback rides, the petting zoos. If we didn't have those things, we'd be (shut) down by now.
Q. Arlington isn't your only business, but it appears to be almost entirely your focus these days. Why have you decided to spend all your time working here?
A. When you start something, you don't want to see something go down. That's a great challenge. I've never been on a salary here since I've been here. I've never gotten expenses reimbursed here. I'm not complaining. I have our other businesses where I make a lot. I'm here six or seven days a week. To be fair about it, I do a lot of work for the other companies but I use this as a home base.
Q. Did you ever predict you'd be this successful?
A. I don't know if you'd say it's being successful. It's having the opportunity to have the challenges. I never thought we wouldn't do it.
At (Morgan Park) Military Academy you learn discipline, you learn responsibility, you learn if you're not responsible for the things that are given to you they'll be taken away from you. I keep a picture on my desk of our first office in Chicago Heights so I can always remember where I came from. It was a 20-by-20-foot space.
Q. Do you have any thoughts on retiring?
A. Well, I have a retirement program all planned out. I have 4.5 years to go on it. I'll be 100. I'll be there. I'll be sitting here talking to you. On my 100th birthday I'm going to hang it up.