It was Mother’s Day, with 35,000 people sitting in the Arlington International Racecourse grandstand when Tony Petrillo, Arlington’s president, and Richard Duchossois went get a hot dog.
“It was very busy — like, you couldn’t walk without bumping into someone — and I lost Dick in the crowd. I kept looking for like 10 minutes and couldn’t find him and decided to buy my hot dog,” Petrillo said.
“When I was walking back, I saw Dick sitting down and eating his hot dog and sharing fries with a worker who just came here from Mexico,” he added. “And that’s who he was. … He would treat migrant workers like he would treat the Queen of England.”
Mr. Duchossois, a decorated war hero who revolutionized horse racing, died Friday in his Barrington Hills home, according to a family spokesperson. He was 100 years old.
The successful businessman was most known for rebuilding and operating Arlington International Racecourse, a thoroughbred racetrack in Arlington Heights. He purchased the track, once known as Arlington Park, it in 1983; two years later, an electrical fire destroyed the entire facility.
Just days after the fire, Mr. Duchossois gathered his employees and announced they were going to run the Arlington Million despite the fire destroying most of the facility. That year’s event became known in horseracing legend as “The Miracle Million.”
Mr. Duchossois—affectionately called Mr. D—would go on to rebuild Arlington into a world-class racecourse. with a cantilevered roof and international stakes races.
“He was a pioneer in racing and reinvented racing in the United States,” Petrillo said. “When it was built it was the most modern track in the country, if not the world. So much so, the Queen of England’s sport racing commission came here to tour the facility and took copies of our blueprint to design her own racecourse.”
After the fire, Mr. Duchossois saw an opportunity to change how horse racing was looked at and tried to reach a larger demographic, Petrillo said. Before the fire, horse racing tracks were often filthy, patronized by cigar-smoking men who wanted time away from their wives, he said. Mr. Duchossois wanted a more family-centric track.
“Arlington Park became a facility that was considered safe and inviting to women and children,” Petrillo said. “The idea was to make mom feel safe, for grandpa and dad to go to the track while also introducing them to the sport as well.”
In 2000, Mr. Duchossois sold the facility to Churchill Downs Inc., but retained an ownership stake. At the time of his death, he held the title of chairman emeritus of the track.
“A lot of times we sometimes concentrate on things that may lead us to believe someone’s true intentions aren’t genuine,” said Domenic DiCera, executive director of the Illinois Racing Board. “But Mr. Duchossois served the industry wholesomely, making it a pleasurable experience — while enjoying a scoop of vanilla ice cream as if he was 10 years old.”
The racecourse closed last year, and the Chicago Bears in September signed a purchase agreement for the 326-acre site, and are pursuing plans to build a new stadium there.
Mr. Duchossois was born Oct. 7, 1921 in Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood and attended Morgan Park Military Academy. He would attend Washington and Lee University before enlisting in the Army at 20 years old as the United States entered World War II.
He was assigned to the 610th Tank Destroyer Battalion where we would serve as commander of a tank destroyer company throughout his five European campaigns under General George Patton.
Wounded in battle, he returned to combat, leading his company through Battle of the Bulge, a massive late offense by German forces. He was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
Chris Block, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said Mr. Duchossios’ military experience was always reflected in how he managed his employees. He was respectful and trusted everyone to do their job as a unit for the greater good of their mission — making Arlington great.
More importantly, Block said, Mr. Duchossois always looked out for his team.
“On four different occasions, I had someone close to me have severe medical issues that needed a second opinion,” Block said. “I called Mr. D and told him and he literally dropped what he was doing to help get them care at the University of Chicago. He didn’t know them, but he knew me and knew I cared about these people and wanted to make sure they were good.”
Former Illinois Racing Board Chairman Jeffrey Brincat also recalled Mr. Duchossois’ many good deeds. He was known for his big heart, whether throwing birthday parties for employees’ disabled children, paying for medical expenses for people who didn’t have health insurance or visiting funerals for employees’ family members.
Brincat also said Mr. Duchossios wasn’t afraid to have fun, like the time he acted as an orchestra conductor, waving his hands in rhythm, as members of the board danced to the YMCA in the winner’s circle.
Before Block became president of the horsemen’s association, he trained Mr. Duchossois’ racehorses.
“He had this vision of rebuilding after the fire and built this incredible track that I was proud to call home,” Block said. “I know Mr. D was an incredibly successful businessman and veteran, but his legacy is Arlington Park.”
Survivors include his wife, Mary Judith; sound, Craig Duchossois; daughters Dayle Duchossois-Fortino and Kimberly Duchossois; stepsons Steve Marchi and Paul Marchi; seven grandchildren; two step-grandchildren; 14 great-grandchildren.