By Chris McGrath
“Quit? Hell, no!”
Anyone who has seen the framed photograph in the grandstand concourse will always remember the caption; nor, in continuing through one of the most sumptuous public facilities in all sport, will they forget the bricks-and-mortar incarnation of that invincible spirit.
The photo shows the smouldering debris of the Arlington grandstand after the fire of July 31, 1985. Twenty-five days later, the fourth Arlington Million was staged on schedule before 35,000 spectators in temporary bleachers and tents. The “Miracle Million” was won by a horse trained in Yorkshire for Lord Derby, confirming that unprecedented prizemoney was duly awakening horsemen the world over to the possibilities that had meanwhile inspired the inauguration of the Breeders' Cup.
But who, among those attending the bitter rites of Arlington's final international raceday, will still be clinging to that mantra with any real conviction? For there is evidently one inferno that will never be quenched, even by the kind of human fervor, dynamism and imagination that first conceived and then redeemed the Million. And that is the remorseless furnace of corporate avarice, where this cherished jewel of the American Turf faces imminent immolation.
As one of many Europeans first introduced to the American racetrack environment by accompanying turf raiders to Million day–albeit one of few, no doubt, whose lives would ultimately be transformed by this new world–I view Saturday's valediction as a kind of bereavement. With grief, with anger, incredulity and despair. And I can't even be there, to pay my respects at the funeral.
Instead I must console myself in the despondent collation of so many happy memories and somehow reconcile myself to the prospect of this magnificent, bracing city being indelibly cheapened by a monumental lapse into tawdriness. For the fate of Arlington shows what happens when capitalism becomes detached from its vital sources, when the organism starts to consume itself, its own lifeblood absorbed into the unthinking, monstrous viscera of accountancy.
One of my most privileged Arlington memories is a meeting with one of Chicago's definitive capitalists. And he told me something that struck me as very wise.
“We're never going to chase a dollar,” he said. “If you have the best services you can, a quality product, and a competitive price, then we feel the dollar will catch us.”
His name was Richard L. Duchossois, the same man honored today by the final running of a race that can no longer vaunt a seven-figure purse and instead patches up its dignity as the Mister D. S. An apt tribute, undoubtedly, to a remarkable man closing on his 100th birthday: one of the last of the great generation raised in the Depression, their endurance tested and deepened further yet as the vigor and dreams of their prime were diverted, and often fatally consumed, by war.
Mister D. himself shared a vivid recollection of lying on a stretcher in Normandy, one of the dying among the dead. To the overwhelmed medics, these two categories had to be treated as one and the same. They had separated only those who stood some kind of chance. And the 22-year-old Duchossois couldn't argue with their verdict. He was paralyzed from the neck down. After days and nights of combat without respite, sedated, absolved of responsibility, he began to yield to a great weariness. Dimly he heard a shout: “That one over there, you better bring him along.” It was only when he felt the stretcher being raised that he realized who “that one” was.
By a no less tenuous thread of fortune, it turned out that the bullet had not severed his spinal cord. The nerves were only in shock. Lying in a Paris hospital, booked for a passage home, Duchossois could think only of the unfinished battle. If anything, the British pilot in the next bed was a still harder case. He had lost a leg, but between them they got hold of a wheelchair and some crutches. Somehow they clambered through a window, and Duchossois was picked up by some guys from his unit. Though promoted to Major by the time he demobbed, he was technically still AWOL.
Through all the ensuing decades he has embraced through so narrow an aperture in fate, Mister D. never left the front line. From the railcar workshop where it all began, right through making a $2-billion empire, he never lost sight of the importance of personal example and human engagement.
“Providing product, that's mechanical,” he said dismissively. “Customer service, people-to-people, is the most valuable thing we have.”
Sure enough, year after year, anyone tending the European horses at the quarantine barn became accustomed to the appearance every morning of a spry, dapper old man, driving himself over just to check whether any service, however trifling, might have been overlooked.
Now I don't imagine you can be as successful a Chicago businessman as Mister D. without having a good deal of the steel that went into those first freight cars. Nor would I presume the slightest idea whether his wonderful acuity may have been eroded in the nine years since our conversation or, indeed, of his inner sentiments about the ruthless cash-out by the corporation to whom he sold Arlington 20 years ago. After all, as I recall Mister D. himself had a major stake in Churchill Downs Inc.
Be all that as it may, our sport will always have a great debt to Mister D. and it's right to honor him and his family today. (By the way, with his late son Bruce also remembered this time, in the big sophomore prize, we must ask which track and race will now seize the opportunity to present a Secretariat S.?)
For my own part, however, I don't see anything sustainable in chasing the dollars of gaming addicts in their zombie compounds. (Ideally, of course, without the expensive pretext of a race meet: talk about “mechanical” product!) True, the conversion of capitalism's nutrient cells into cancerous ones is a two-way process. All around us, every day, we see consumers idiotically complicit in the erosion of socially vibrant and viable markets, conspiring with a handful of megabrands (which will someday end up transcending all democratic government) in order to get something cheaply and conveniently.
But talking to people who were blessed to be at Saratoga for the meet's spiritual core–the Hall of Fame induction, Whitney weekend, the sale–there's absolutely no question that our sport retains the capacity to impassion a more commercially fertile demographic. And I also believe that our community has sufficient resources, in both finance and flair, somehow to acquire and secure other storied venues vulnerable to the kind of disaster that has overtaken Arlington.
In this instance, to be fair, the people responsible don't feel answerable to anything as nebulous as “horseracing.” What's more, they will doubtless do a very professional job with those tracks that are deemed worth their shareholders' while. But the condemned man knows he will gain no reprieve by gazing imploringly into the hardened, unseeing eyes of the guard.
Must we quit, really? Can we really let a wrecking ball pulverize the phoenix that rose from the flames? One thing is for sure. If we do, then the pain must animate and invigorate the defense of our heritage against further corrosion. Otherwise, to use a phrase popularized by Chicago's greatest interpreter, Saul Bellow, the blaze of 1985 will be as nothing compared to “the moronic inferno” closing around us all.