An equine renaissance

Arlington Park's owner rebuilt it after it burned, only to shut it down. Now the gleaming racetrack is bringing the Breeders' Cup to the Midwest.

Published August 21, 2002 11:45PM (EDT)

All the restroom innovations I've ever seen I've seen at airports: automatic flushing toilets, faucets, seat-protection devices. But the first automatic soap dispensers I ever saw were at a racetrack.

They were in a regular old public men's room, not in the luxury suites or anything, but just right there in the grandstand at Arlington Park, the thoroughbred track in Chicago's northern suburbs.

If you're the kind of person who likes the old-time atmosphere of the track, smoke-stained walls, sticky floors, old men in sweat-stained shirts chomping dead cigars and frowning over the Daily Racing Form trying to decide how to bet their retirement check, Arlington Park isn't for you. If the marble floors don't turn you off, the fact that you can practically eat off them might.

The track is having a big year. This is the 75th season of racing at Arlington. This year's Kentucky Derby winner, the Illinois horse War Emblem, broke his maiden at Arlington. Over the weekend it was the site of the 20th Arlington Million, which on its inaugural running in 1981 was the first thoroughbred race with a million-dollar purse. A million bucks was a lot of money in 1981, you see. The Million, a mile and a quarter turf race, remains the track's signature event, except this year, when it will play host to the Breeders' Cup, the first time that thoroughbred racing's richest day will ever be in the Midwest.

All this is most impressive when you consider that three years ago the track was dark for a second straight season, shuttered by its owner, railroad equipment magnate Richard Duchossois, in a bid to force a change in state gambling laws that he felt benefited casino gambling at the expense of the racing industry. That shutdown, in 1998, came 13 years after a fire had reduced the track to rubble. That fire came 25 days before the fifth running of the Million.

They ran the Million that year, in front of 35,651 fans in temporary bleachers and tents, with the rubble having been removed by round-the-clock work. The massive effort earned the track the Eclipse Award, racing's highest. It was the first track so awarded. The place was eventually rebuilt. The laws were eventually changed, and it was reopened. Dick Duchossois (it's pronounced the French way) and his people (who call him "Mr. D") know how to get things done.

"We're not that big philanthropists about it, but we had a responsibility," Duchossois, who is 81 and looks about 60, says about rebuilding the track following the 1985 fire. "This was an economic engine in the area. We owned it, and if it was gone, my family and I felt we had a moral obligation to replace it. And that we did."

Horse racing's prime attendance years had passed, so the new track was built smaller than the old one. The idea was to make it the nicest, best track in the country. "I don't like to be second to anything," Duchossois says.

"As far as the aesthetic beauty of a racetrack, as far as the modern-day racetrack goes, it's second to none," says Chris McCarron, the Hall of Fame jockey who retired this summer. "Other racetracks have a lot of historical mystique and charm. This track falls more into the category of your modern stadium." The dirt track itself is "great," McCarron says: "It's kind to horses. And as far as the turf, it's the best grass course in the country, bar none."

Dick Duchossois made his fortune after he returned from World War II, where he served under Gen. George S. Patton. A sign on his desk that explains his management philosophy -- "Don't expect what you don't inspect" -- comes from his war experience, when as a captain he sent a lieutenant to guard a gully that Duchossois hadn't looked at. Turned out to be the wrong gully, and the unit was overrun by Germans. "Was it his fault or was it my fault? I can't blame him; he was only a lieutenant. I was a captain at the time. I'm responsible."

After the war, Duchossois turned his father-in-law's railroad car repair business, Thrall Car Manufacturing, into Duchossois Industries, a billion-dollar company. He got into horse racing in the early '70s by investing in a few horses, then got involved with Arlington by accident. He was at the Kentucky Derby when he ran into two men who were running the track for Gulf & Western and trying to put together a group to buy it from the conglomerate. They asked Duchossois if he wanted to buy in.

"'If you have any trouble getting all the money together, I'd be interested, but a very small piece,'" he says he told them. "Well, it ended up I put up all the money for the track." The two Gulf & Western men and a friend were minor partners, eventually bought out by Duchossois. At first, he says, "I just looked at it as a straight investment. Then along came the end of July in 1985 and the track burned down. From then on I was in the racing business."

Duchossois had actually retired from his day job at Duchossois Industries 10 days before the fire. "And then I'm working harder than I ever worked." The race went off, going down in history as the Miracle Million, with an English horse named Teleprompter, a 14-1 shot, winning. Duchossois smiles at the memory.

The track was rebuilt by 1989 (the Million was run in Toronto in '88), and soon found itself with new competition: dog racing and Indian gambling in Wisconsin and riverboat casinos in Illinois. "It became time for us to say, 'Well, we aren't going to knock them out of the thing. How are we going to live with them?'" Duchossois says. "We did well for the first five or six years. Simulcasting came in. But the laws of Illinois were very antiquated, they were very old. It wasn't the slot machines, it wasn't the riverboats, it wasn't the dogs that were hurting us. It was our inability to compete with other racetracks throughout the country on an equal basis. We were unable to compete with the riverboats and so forth on an equal basis. And we needed racing reform very badly."

Duchossois says prohibitive property and parimutuel taxes were making it impossible to compete. He made the bold move of shutting down the track in hopes of pressuring the Illinois Legislature into changing the laws. Critics say that Duchossois, a major Republican fundraiser, was trying to use his political connections to enrich the track, but he says that he was only trying to, as he puts it, even the playing field.

"Why should we be so heavily penalized when new people are coming in and they don't have the same rules to play by?" he says, noting that the riverboats pay no property taxes. "If you can't get it completely level, let's just try to level it part way. And that's why we shut down. We had to draw the attention. Horse racing was a given fact. It's always been here; it always will be. So somebody had to say, Hey, that's enough. That was us."

He had hoped the other tracks in the Chicago area, Sportsman's Park and Hawthorne, would support him. "We shut down and the other tracks just picked up the dates that we left off, and they did well," he says. "So we then had to either get racing reform or stay out of the business."

They got racing reform, in the form of the tracks getting a subsidy from riverboat profits, and Arlington reopened for the 2000 meet. It had been dark for two years.

"Is [the playing field] equal now? No way," he says. "But is it better than it was before? Yeah. Can we make a living? Yeah, if we have good management. But on the other hand, are we going to be profitable like casinos? Never. Never. Parimutuel racing and casino gambling are two separate things. It's our chosen field. We can't whine about it, we can't cry about it, no one broke our arm to get into it. If we can't compete, we have to get out."

Right now, Arlington is competing. Duchossois says the track, which merged last summer into Churchill Downs Inc. (making Duchossois the largest shareholder in the racing juggernaut that owns the famed Louisville track, Hollywood Park and others), is profitable. He says Arlington Park's record of getting things done -- pulling off the Miracle Million, rebuilding, pushing through racing reform -- persuaded the Breeders' Cup to award the 2002 event to the track despite its need to build temporary seating to get up to the required 50,000-seat capacity.

"We probably won't make any money on this race -- Breeders' Cup will make that," Duchossois says. But he says the exposure will do wonders for Illinois racing, which was hurt by the Arlington shutdown, and which is a bigger business than you might think. "You have to bear in mind, this is agribusiness," he explains. "The racetrack is just the tip of the iceberg out here. You've got the farmer, the breeder, the guy that grows the wheat, the hay, the oats, the guy that drives the trucks, the veterinarian, the veterinarian schools, all these other things that come on up. I would say for every man at the race track, you probably have eight to 10 people back on the farm supporting that horse."

I ask if this is a golden age for Illinois racing and Duchossois says no. "I'd say we're maybe bronze. But we're not back in the tin," he says. "We haven't had adequate time really to build the culture back in, to get our people trained. But still we think our customer service, our facility, our cleanliness, all of those things, are better than most railroads -- uh, most racetracks."

A telling slip of the tongue. The trains do run on time at Arlington Park. Not bad for a place that's been dead twice in the last two decades.

"The smart business decision would have been, when it burned down, clean it up and develop it," Duchossois says. A lot of people are glad he didn't.

"My only criticism of this place is that it's not in California," trainer Bobby Frankel said after his horse, the favorite Beat Hollow, won the Arlington Million Saturday by a nose. "We could use a place like this in California."

Dr. John Chandler, president of Juddmonte Farms, which owns Beat Hollow, concurred. "We'd rather win here than anyplace else," he said.

I know how he feels. I'd rather wash my hands there than anyplace else.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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