Jim O'Donnell: Saying goodbye to an era -- the amazing race of Dick Duchossois

  • Dick Duchossois died Friday at 100 in his Barrington Hills home, his family said.

    Dick Duchossois died Friday at 100 in his Barrington Hills home, his family said. Courtesy of the Duchossois family

 
Updated 1/29/2022 9:19 AM

VOLTAIRE ONCE SUGGESTED that there is birth, there is death and in between are starts of fancied follies and true miseries.

Dick Duchossois spent a lifetime trying to outrace follies and misery. On Friday, at age 100, more earthly battles won than lost, he succeeded in his pursuit of an honorable death.

 

His personal complexities would require volumes.

He wanted his professional philosophies in a book for private circulation only, among members of his family -- a spreading tree that is now touching a fifth generation.

"Mr. D" accomplished that goal in 2016 when he had "Riding the Rails" written and published.

It's a compilation of lessons and tales from the rise of a modest railroad parts repair company in the South suburbs into a diversified global business and investment conglomerate worth billions.

Along the way, he became most publicly known -- and judged -- for his extended participation in the stewardship of Arlington Park.

That role began in 1983, when he and partners Sheldon Robbins, Joe Joyce and Ralph Ross purchased the legacied nine-furlong oval from a retrenching Gulf & Western.

The end of his participation came in starts and stops, and to some, it really still hasn't been concluded.

MR. DUCHOSSOIS WENT SOLO in 1986, when he bought out his three partners one year after a fire leveled the aging, wooden main grandstand. That blaze brought about all of the myth and lore that sprang from "The Miracle Million," staged 25 days later.

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He went petulant in 1997, when he closed the track over an assorted list of strategic annoyances, disappointments and self interests.

And in the run-up to his racing twilight, he went financially masterful in 2000 when he reopened and shortly after announced a "merger" with Churchill Downs Inc.

While that marriage would eventually direct Arlington Park on to an accelerated ramp to probable racing doom, it would also increase the Duchossois family fortune by hundreds of millions of dollars. And what of the man, of the absolutely remarkable life force that raced within?

• • •

ONLY ONE PRIMARY TALE will be told.

It will be recounted because it still resonates very close to home and because it so thoroughly typifies the instinctive, assertive compassion that "Mr. D" could generate.

Tuesday, Aug. 9, 1988, was one of the worst days in the history of The Daily Herald and its parent Paddock Publications.

That was the gray morning when word reached from Colorado that free-spirited sports writer Keith Reinhard had walked off the face of the earth.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Reinhard -- then age 49 -- had taken a 90-day sabbatical to begin work on a novel and regenerate in tiny Silver Plume. It's a ghostly town up where the Rocky Mountains above Denver begin to get serious.

Late on the previous Sunday afternoon, he allegedly said he was going to walk up a mountain to take some photos -- while hung over and wearing sneakers.

And then he was gone.

• • •

THE INITIAL HOURS after the Tuesday notification were shocking and surreal.

Confusion reigned. A de facto headquarters was set up at Reinhard's home in Algonquin.

There was still a chance Reinhard was hurt or dazed in some remote ravine.

A phone call was placed to the deputy sheriff in the mountain county who was responsible for coordinating the "Alpine rescue search."

The questions from Algonquin were direct: What's the status? What can we do from here?

"Well, we need helicopters," the deputy said. "But I don't imagine you've got any sitting out in your driveway to get here pronto."

We'll get back to you, was the brief response.

THE FIRST CALL WENT to Dennis Swanson in New York.

He was the ex-Marine who quickly ascended heights in the private sector as a TV executive.

One of his greatest feats came as the rehab specialist who flipped Chicago's WLS-Channel 7 from No. 3 in the market to No. 1 between 1983-85.

During that span, he was also one of the main scouts responsible for recognizing so much of what young Oprah Winfrey might become.

By the time of Reinhard's disappearance, he had succeeded Roone Arledge as president of ABC Sports.

The emergent situation was explained to him. With gracious empathy, he answered:

"I'll call our Denver affiliate but I'm sure all they have is their traffic copter. And that's probably already up that way covering your story, because I'm sure that's a big deal already out there.

"That copter's not going to be much help to the search party. It's going to have to get back to Denver to do afternoon traffic."

THE SECOND PHONE CALL went to Mr. Duchossois.

He listened, carefully, immediately sensing the shock and urgency.

When the opening summary was done, the absolute longshot thought of getting any helicopter to Silver Plume was emphasized, All he asked was, "Where is this town?"

About 70 miles outside Denver.

"And what's its name?"

After that response, there may have been 15 seconds or so of silence on the line.

Then, the fabulously successful industrialist said:

"OK. I want you to write down this woman's name and telephone number. She's one of (U.S. Sen.) Paul Simon's primary aides in Washington (D.C.).

"Fort Carson isn't all that far from this town. And I know they have helicopters that are likely standing down on a Tuesday like this.

"When you get her on the line, begin by telling her I told you to call her. Make sure you say that first. Then tell her who you are and what you do. Then tell her the exact details of what you need. And then call me back."

• • •

HIS ORDERS WERE followed with military precision. Sen. Simon's assistant seemed to snap to immediately when the name "Duchossois" highlighted the overture.

She said, "Fine. I'll get going on this immediately and notify the Senator. I'll call you back when I know more."

She didn't have to. A little more than an hour later, the deputy from Colorado called.

"I don't really know who you are or who in the hell you know," he said. "But I just got a phone call that the U.S. Army is sending eight helicopters to help us.

"I had to tell them that's too many. We don't have the air space over the primary search area. So they're sending back four and the rest to us."

In the end, the search was futile. In the words of the deputy about a month later, Reinhard could be put into the question-marked category of either "murder, mountain or Mexico."

But from that day forward, no matter what the journalistic contretemps du jour, there was never any question about the heart, soul and capacity for nimble, connective compassion of Richard Louis Duchossois.

• • •

THE DECADES OF DICK DUCHOSSOIS at Arlington Park can be broken down into four summary segments:

1983-90 -- Energized fascination and niched education;

1990-97 -- Disillusionment and betrayal;

2000-07 -- Pragmatic profit and the intended valedictory of the 2002 Breeders' Cup; and,

2008-21 -- Wind down, bolstered by CDI's astonishing casino profits.

As an officer and a gentleman, his public persona goes into the thoroughbred register without a blemish.

In a different age, in the darker stalls of what horse racing in Illinois once was, he probably would have bailed a few years after getting in. It was far too lethal a game.

In the modern age, he showed them all that he could outthink and plot with greater élan than close to every last one.

And when push came to gavel, he had the biggest bankroll on the racetrack.

He never wavered from his long-standing statement that his top goal was to see that the family business holdings remained in Duchossois hands as close to perpetuity as possible.

The family, in all of its generational expansion, is well along that path.

And he wore his celebrity extremely well. That despite his endless insistence that he never signed on for so much public attention all those years ago with Robbins, Joyce and Ross.

• • •

AT THE END OF a business lunch in the Directors Room at Arlington Trackside a few years back -- April 2014 to be exact -- the table had dwindled to Mr. Duchossois and a bearded chum who wrote a bit.

The chairman was actually telling a string of flowing anecdotes about his extended friendship with Arnold Palmer. (And "Mr. D" was never much of a golfer; the two shared rich men's fascinations with yachts, resorts and the possibilities of private aviation.)

Out of the blue, RLD resurrected a line he had first used on his tablemate back in 1986.

"You know," he said, "There are still a lot of times I think I liked it better back when no one could pronounce my last name."

His junior Boswell looked down at some remaining cantaloupe, chuckled, and replied:

"Dick ... no you don't."

And now, his amazing race is run.

• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at jimodonnelldh@yahoo.com.

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