Jim O'Donnell: The day Dick Duchossois said 'no' to Whitney Houston
MUCH IS BEING MADE about the extraordinarily sad, doomed and downright mean spirits emanating from Arlington Park these days.
Arlington's 2021 live season will go down in the books as one of the most pathetic undertakings in the history of Chicago sports.
It's what happens when a one-trick corporate pony out of Louisville winds up selling a spurious "product" -- casino and online gaming -- in a state where a prime governing motto long has been, "Where's mine?"
But once upon a time, there was magnificence at a golden oval.
Perhaps none was greater than the 13-day "International Festival of Racing" that Dick Duchossois and staff orchestrated in the summer of 1986.
It was one year after a fire leveled the grandstand. The meet ran in front of tents and temporary bleachers from mid-August to Labor Day. Daily purses averaged -- averaged -- $323,000.
And a hustling young AP marketing and promotions man named Tom Finch thought he had an over-the-moon coup for "Mr. D." and colleagues.
FINCH WAS ONE of the few Blacks to ever gain traction in the front office of a Chicago-area racetrack.
He grew up in East Orange, N.J., on the edge of Newark. Just down Sterling Street lived an older girl who would go on to become quite a singer.
Her name was Dionne Warwick.
Warwick had an aunt named Cissy Houston.
From her first marriage, "Aunt Cissy" had a son named Gary Garland who would make it to the DePaul Sports Hall of Fame and the NBA.
From her second marriage, "Aunt Cissy" had a darling daughter named Whitney Houston.
"I think I knew Whitney just about from the day she saw born," said Finch, now 68 and long a well-networked presence in major regional promotions and event execution.
"In the summer of 1986, she was as hot a star as there was in pop music. And she just happened to be playing two nights at Poplar Creek on the weekend of the 1986 Arlington Million."
WELL IN ADVANCE, FINCH ASKED if she'd like to attend the Million. According to Finch, she said, "That'd be great. Thanks for asking."
Finch arranged for a horse-drawn carriage with gold trim to carry Houston to the winner's circle. When he told her about that, he also decided to press his luck and ask if she'd sing the national anthem.
"She was such a good person," Finch said. "I'll never forget, she said, 'For you -- of course, Tom.' "
At a staff meeting near the start of the festival, Finch waited his turn. Then he popped his bomber -- "We've got Whitney Houston to sing the national anthem on Million Day."
Joe Joyce -- who was in his final days as track president after quietly selling his 4.9% ownership stake to Duchossois -- said, "That's fantastic. How the hell did you get that done?"
FINCH REPORTED SMILES all around the table. And then Chairman Duchossois -- an unwavering devotee of John Phillips Sousa-type presentations when it came to patriotic songs -- interrupted.
"Who is this girl, Tom?" he asked.
Finch explained: Whitney Houston ... Giant young recording star ... Then in the midst of her sold-out "The Greatest Love World Tour" ... Huge string of No. 1 singles already including "Saving All My Love For You," "How Will I Know" and "Greatest Love of All."
Duchossois was attentive, but in the end, only mildly impressed.
"I think we'll stick with Ellen," Duchossois -- according to Finch -- replied.
"Ellen" was Ellen Mersch, a robust Duchossois favorite who left no doubt that she had been significantly influenced somewhere along the line by both Ethel Merman and Kate Smith.
"There was no way to protest and what were you going to protest in that spot?" Finch now says.
"It was his racetrack and his culture and we were employees. So Whitney came to Million Day, she got the gold-carriage treatment and Ellen Mersch sang the national anthem. 'Mr. D.' and all were very gracious hosts to Whitney and she went back out that night and played to another packed house at Poplar Creek."
NOWADAYS AT AP, it's a good day when credentialed media are left alone and unharassed to do their jobs.
But once upon a time, there were afternoons when Arlington Park provided glimpses of the celestial.
Even if Whitney Houston was no better than an early scratch as the national anthem singer.
• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at email@example.com.