By Michael Adolphson
This Saturday’s 35th Arlington Million at Arlington International Racecourse is the centerpiece of the Chicagoland oval’s International Festival of Racing and has been one of the world’s marquee global grass affairs since 1981. The world’s first seven-figure race, a Grade I $1-million Breeders’ Cup Challenge ‘Win and You’re In’ event, it has consistently brought together champions to compete at one of the most beautiful racecourses in America and over one of its most heralded turf courses.
Richard L. ‘Mr. D.’ Duchossois has been at forefront of Arlington’s operation since 1983, functioning as Chairman, visionary and captain through the volatile seas of a history more than littered with its fair share of ups and downs. Sharp as a tack and soft on the approach, Duchossois appears as open and enthusiastic as ever, striving–even at age 96–for the success of the facility and its flagship fixture. Such was truly tested, of course, in the infamous fire of July 31, 1985, that decimated the track just three weeks prior to the fifth Arlington Million.
“I came from a manufacturing business and I thought we had an obligation to the public after the fire,” Duchoissois reflected. “If we owned something that burned down, we would build it back up for them. Everyone wanted to cancel the Million and we couldn’t do that and it was not acceptable to me.”
“I thought ‘no, we will work it out’ and in 21 days, we cleared all the debris away, built a tent city and held the race. That showed the spirit of Arlington, Chicago and our people.
“Fortunately a longshot named Teleprompter won that year for Lord Derby and it couldn’t have happened to a finer man,” Duchossois continued. “It was just delightful and it made the people in Europe really take notice of the race even more. The fire, our ability to have the race 21 days later and Lord Derby’s horse winning–none of them were planned, but that’s how life is and it helped make the Arlington Million a truly global event and proved the point that we were dedicated to advancing racing here in the United States on an international level at Arlington.”
This year’s Festival is stocked with high-quality horses and connections from four continents. Offering complex and exciting possibilities, the Million is one of three Grade I races and five overall stakes to be held at a facility heralded equally for its beauty, user-friendliness and equine facilities. Originally less involved in the operation of the track, Duchossois took the bull by the horns after the fire, diving head-first into an incredibly intense passion project that has paid dividends galore for racing fans over the last three decades.
“I founded Duchossios Industries, but after the fire, I came here to Arlington, stayed here and haven’t gone back,” he said. “It completely changed my career. I wanted to be part of the track and have it move the direction we would like to see it go. We then got involved with Churchill (Downs). They needed a new building (track) and I wanted more liquidity in my estate. So, in reality, we actually purchased 25% of Churchill Downs with our stock, they didn’t really purchase us. That’s how we put the combination together.
“We rebuilt this place seven-days-a-week for 19 months after the 1985 Million and had the people in mind when we did,” Duchossois continued. “We went to an architectural firm that had never designed a racetrack and did a lot of research at other racetracks. We didn’t speak to any management, we instead went to the customers at the tracks and asked them what they wanted to see in a racetrack. They wanted bigger seats, no posts to have to sit behind and more things like open spaces. We didn’t want the facility to be the same as it was. We wanted to replace it with the best customer experience we could and with an even better product. That is why we have this wonderful grandstand and a beautiful place to see the races.”
Ultimately, what Arlington has become today is the product of a man who has never been content with any static status quo. Duchossois’ unrelenting goal is the step-by-step simplification, acquisition and progression of excellence–not the abstract idea of such that can often never be achieved–and such a tangibility-oriented mindset trickles down effectively throughout Arlington.
“I am not a horseman and I know that,” he said. “I let the trainers do the training of my horses and I don’t accept any excuses after a race from them except two: the horse didn’t run fast enough or the horse didn’t finish the race. I am a businessman and we are a business and I think we often overcomplicate things. Any business is divided into three sections: the suppliers–the owners, trainers, breeders and the guy who grows all the food– the marketplace over here and the distributor, which is us. They have to work together. The distributor, the track, takes half the money and gives it to the horsemen through purses, but if we’re not having good fields, we won’t sell as many mutuel tickets and everyone suffers. It’s that simple. The racetrack does little more than sell a mutuel ticket, but you have to have good horses, good racing, an exciting environment and beautiful facility.
“We have that at Arlington and I think the industry will improve,” he continued. “It’s not doing well right now, but it’s hard to think that we will be completely rubbed out. This is a multi billion-dollar industry and we are only a small part when you think about the breeding, the food and the market. It employs around 30,000 people and we have great people in Illinois in the legislature. I believe there will be a mutual understanding between the state and the industry that will come about. I have a lot of faith in our governor and legislators, who I believe are good people who will have the right priorities.”
While Duchossois has yet to form an opinion of this year’s Million field, or derive a handicapping strategy for one of his “five-or-six” annual racetrack wagers, he does recognize all of the investments and risks that have helped the Arlington Million become what it is today. I would be easy for a man responsible for leading Arlington to three special Eclipse Awards, an Eclipse Award of Merit of his own and an enviable global honor roll of achievements to accept the praise, but such is visibly and audibly not Mr. D.’s way. Just as he did when serving five European campaigns in the military during World War II, the Chicago native maintains the perspective of a man dedicated to service and resolute in all things outstanding.
“I love everything about Million Day and am very proud of what we have done here at Arlington,” Duchossois said. “The Million changed the way people think of a million dollars. Now (million-dollar races) are a dime a dozen, but we have and element of prestige and that comes from years of great races, horses and horse people, and, of course, Lord Derby’s great victory.
“No matter the politics, whether you’re a democrat or republican or wherever you’re from–Ireland, France, Japan, America or anywhere–horse racing is horse racing and horse people are horse people,” he concluded. “We believe firmly that there is one common language across the world and that’s thoroughbred horse racing and we’re very excited for another Arlington Million.”