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The first call to Richard Duchossois advised him that a small electrical fire had broken out at Arlington International Racecourse. The second indicated flames had spread but firefighters were on the scene and were confident they could contain them. The third urged Duchossois to rush to the scene.
When he arrived, he could not believe his eyes.
The small electrical fire had turned into an inferno. By the time 150 firefighters brought it under control with the help of some rain, the racetrack in Arlington Heights, Ill., that Duchossois (pronounced DUTCH-ah-swah) had bought into only two years before had largely turned into a smoldering wreck.
The date was July 31, 1985. The Arlington Million, established four years earlier as the nation’s first Thoroughbred race carrying a purse of at least $1 million, was to be run 25 days later. To most viewing the devastation from near and far, it seemed impossible that Arlington could host that year. Duchossois readily accepted the enormous challenge.
In an article written by Neil Milbert for the Chicago Tribune, former Senior Vice President Bill Thayer recalled, “I have to admit he was the only one who thought it could be done. There are two things you can’t tell Dick Duchossois. First of all, never tell him ‘It can’t be done.’ Secondly, he doesn’t want to hear ‘The way we used to do it.’ ”
Duchossois, now 99, has been a can-do man of action throughout his well-lived life. He served with distinction during World War II and was involved in five European campaigns. Normandy, where he commanded the 610th Tank Destroyer Battalion, was most notable among those.
By the time his military service was done, he had risen to the rank of Major while earning a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars.
If he was able to survive Normandy and the rest of World War II, no racetrack fire was about to stop Duchossois. Crews worked day and night to remove a grandstand that had turned to rubble. They then installed a combination of temporary seating and tents.
A crowd of 35,651, inspired by an owner’s devotion to his racetrack and its signature race, attended what became known as the “Miracle Million.” They watched Teleprompter of Great Britain prevail in what turned into an instant classic.
“It was a miracle,” said Howard Sudberry, senior director of marketing and communications at Arlington. “They worked 24-7 to get it ready.”
Arlington’s dramatic revival was recognized that year when it became the first track to receive a Special Eclipse Award. Duchossois also earned the Eclipse Award of Merit in 2003 and was in 2019 inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame as a Pillar of the Turf.
Other honors include the Jockey Club Gold Medal (1986), Special Sovereign Award from the Jockey Club of Canada (1988), and the Lord Derby Award from the Horse Race Writers and Reporters Association of Great Britain (1988).
Duchossois, founder of The Duchossois Group, Inc., with its headquarters in Elmhurst, Ill., has always pursued excellence in every endeavor. He takes great pride in Arlington.
“He’s obsessed with perfection,” Milbert said. “He wanders around and looks at men’s rooms. He wants his track to be completely spic and span.”
Great emphasis is placed on customer service. He insists that visitors to the track be viewed as more than customers.
“They are our guests, and that comes from him,” Sudberry said. “That is the way he treats people.”
The Arlington Million was run for the 37th time in 2019, but was canceled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The race has continued through the years to attract a strong international presence as a mile-and-a-quarter race for 3-year-olds and older on the turf. In 2021, the Arlington Million was renamed the “Mister D Stakes” in honor of Duchossois.
When the Arlington’s signature race goes off without a hitch, Duchossois can be expected to send personal letters to those employees who are involved in the success.
“He has sent personal letters to me when my office is right down the hall,” Sudberry said. “It’s classy, it’s heartfelt.”
Sudberry saved them all.
Note: This story originally was published in 2019 and has been updated.
- Arlington Park hosted the Breeders’ Cup in 2002.
- Duchossois played quarterback at Morgan Park Academy in Chicago.
- He is a member of the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame.
- He received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Washington and Lee University.
- Duchossois and his wife, Judi, were presented with the Sword of Loyola from Loyola University Chicago for their philanthropy.