Richard L. Duchossois, a native of Chicago, decorated war hero, renowned businessman, and horse racing icon, passed away peacefully Jan. 28 at his home in Barrington Hills, Ill. He was 100.
Duchossois was known for his top-down management style, exacting business principles, customer service-oriented philosophies, and commitment to quality as evidenced in every workplace with his oft-repeated admonition, “Don’t expect what you didn’t inspect.” His meticulous attention to detail was applied with military precision across all aspects of his life, down to his double-breasted suits and pocket scarves. Sightings of an impeccably dressed “Mr. D,” as he was affectionately called, walking the halls of his businesses were a common occurrence.
Duchossois was the embodiment of perseverance. Of the many organizations in Duchossois’ business portfolio over the period of his professional career, many would come to associate him most with Arlington Park, the Thoroughbred racetrack located in Arlington Heights, Ill. After an electrical fire destroyed the entire facility in 1985, the rebuild Duchossois championed set Arlington apart from other racetracks globally, with its striking cantilevered roof, world-class facilities, and international stakes races.
Richard Duchossois entertains racegoers in 2014 in the paddock at Arlington Park
While a typical response to the complete devastation of the fire would have been to walk away, in a tour-de-force, Duchossois galvanized his employees to hold the famous Arlington Million race just days after the fire. This feat would go down in horse racing legends as the “Miracle Million” and it marked the first time a racetrack was ever awarded racing’s highest honor, the Eclipse Special Award.
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Born Oct. 7, 1921, to Ernestine and Alphonse Duchossois in the south Chicago neighborhood of Beverly, Richard Louis Duchossois was destined to lead a life that personified what Americans define as “The Greatest Generation.” In his 100 years of life, Duchossois left an indelible impression on the world as a veteran, entrepreneur, philanthropist, husband, father, uncle, grandfather, great-grandfather, and friend.
The second of four siblings, Duchossois attended Morgan Park Military Academy during his formative years.
“I learned (at Morgan Park) discipline of the mind and that you have to try to win,” Duchossois explained in a family business retrospective book, Riding the Rails, published in 2016. “We had a professor of military science and tactics. He always said if we’re going to get ahead, we must be second to none.”
Duchossois credited this philosophy, combined with the leadership, honor, and integrity that he learned in his year-and-a-half at Washington and Lee University, as having laid the foundation for his ability to not only survive, but thrive under pressure. These moments would be far from few in his century-long life.
Duchossois was just 20 years old when he was called to serve with the US Army following the United States’ entry into World War II. He was assigned to the 610th Tank Destroyer Battalion and served as commander of a Tank Destroyer Company throughout five European campaigns under General George S. Patton.
Although once feared dead from a gunshot wound, Duchossois survived, recovered, and returned to the front, leading his company through famous operations such as The Battle of the Bulge. Duchossois was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his sacrifice and, decades later, continued to garner recognition for his service. He received the Order of St. Maurice medallion, an honor that acknowledges both wartime distinction and ongoing character standards and accomplishments, as well as the distinction of the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest award, presented to him by the French government in Normandy on the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014. As a trustee, Duchossois participated in several oral history projects for the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.
Richard Duchossois during World War II
In July 1943, Duchossois married his sweetheart Beverly (nee Thrall), who gave birth to their first son Craig in 1944 while Duchossois was on the frontline in Europe. The couple went on to have three more children, Dayle, Bruce, and Kimberly. They settled in Flossmoor, a southwest suburb of Chicago.
Upon his return home from the war, Duchossois was invited to join Beverly’s family’s business, Thrall Car Manufacturing Company—a modest railcar parts and repair company with 35 employees, and a rudimentary yard, based in Chicago Heights, Ill. Despite lacking business experience, it was at Thrall Car that Duchossois honed his intuitive business instincts: He relentlessly strived for growth and improvement.
By 2001, when it was acquired by Trinity Rail Group, Thrall Car Manufacturing Company had a production capacity of 16,000 rail cars per year and 3,000 employees. Duchossois diversified his company over the years with the purchase of Chamberlain Manufacturing Group, broadcast outlets, Arlington, and a number of other businesses.
Duchossois lost his wife Beverly to cancer in 1980. Her care and treatment received at The University of Chicago served as the catalyst for Duchossois’ first major philanthropic gift to UCMC in 1978. This gift supported world-renowned experts in lymphoma, Dr. John Ultmann as the first director of the cancer research center at the University of Chicago. The establishment of The Duchossois Family Foundation soon followed.
Beverly’s death became the vehicle for the family to support cancer research in partnership with the University of Chicago, as well as initiatives such as Patient Navigation Services with the American Cancer Society, among others.
During his tenure in horse racing, Duchossois brought the 2002 Breeders’ Cup to Arlington, owned one of the leading breeding farms in Illinois, and actively worked to influence and shape the racing industry and its legislation. In 2019 Duchossois was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. He was also awarded The Jockey Club Gold Medal in 1986, a special Sovereign Award in 1988, and the Lord Derby Award from the Horse Race Writers and Reporters Association of Great Britain (1988).
In 2000, Churchill Downs Inc. purchased Arlington in a deal that saw CDI assume about $80 million in loans and Duchossois receive nearly 4 million shares of CDI common stock. In late 2021, CDI entered into an agreement with the Chicago Bears to sell the 326-acre property. CDI anticipates closing of the sale, which is subject to a number of closing conditions, in late 2022 or early 2023.
“We are profoundly saddened today by the loss of Richard Duchossois,” said CDI CEO Bill Carstanjen. “He was a tireless champion of Churchill Downs and Thoroughbred racing. His impact on those of us involved in this industry was simply immeasurable. He was a mentor and friend to so many in Churchill Downs, most especially me, and we will all miss his grace, wisdom, and humor His contributions to Churchill Downs and Thoroughbred racing were merely a small part of his extraordinary life.
“They call his generation ‘America’s Greatest’ and to be fortunate to spend time with this man was to be in the presence of a truly special individual who led a full life of sacrifice, commitment, and service to others. We will mourn him, miss him, and wonder if there could ever be another like Richard Duchossois.”
“The loss of our wonderful friend and leader ‘Mr. D.’ leaves the Arlington family with a heavy heart, yet we are warmed by the memories he gave us and the communities he touched through his long life,” read a statement issued by Arlington Park. “We extend our deepest condolences to his wife, Judi, and his surviving children Craig, Dayle, and Kim, and their large extended family.
“‘Mr. D.’ accomplished many good things in life. He worked hard and always followed the path of honesty and integrity which is a gift that he passed on to all of us around him. We are most grateful to him for sharing this gift with us. ‘Mr. D.’ loved being around people, being a part of the community, picking people up by their boot-straps, and watching them succeed. He was the consumer teacher. He always preached ‘Don’t Expect What You Didn’t Inspect,’ to take the responsibility you place on others upon yourself as well. We are forever grateful for his loyalty and enduring friendship.”
The Arlington statement ended with homage to the song that played at the end of the day over the loudspeakers at Arlington: “Happy Trails to you, until we meet again.”
“On behalf of Illinois Thoroughbred owners and trainers, we extend our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Dick Duchossois,” read a statement issued Friday by the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “Mr. D served our nation with distinction and thereafter brought his enduring tenacity and exceptional work ethic to the helm of Arlington Park—a track he worked to build into a world-class destination for Thoroughbred horse racing.
“As we mourn his loss, we are reminded of his immense contributions to Thoroughbred racing in North America, most especially here in Illinois. His imprint on the sport and industry was vast and will not be forgotten.”
“Dick sets a personal standard to which we should all aspire,” said Washington and Lee president Will Dudley in 2018. “His leadership, humility, generosity, and dedication to the service of others are an inspiration to all those who know him. We are indebted to him for his ongoing commitment to W&L.”
Among his survivors are wife Mary Judith (nee McKeage) of Barrington, Ill., who he married in 2000 and who has lovingly stood by his side for all business, philanthropic, and family endeavors.
He is also survived by his son Craig J. Duchossois (Janet) of Chicago, daughter Dayle Duchossois Fortino (Ed) of Chicago, daughter Kimberly Duchossois of Barrington, Ill., and stepsons Steve Marchi (Sherrie) of Palatine, Ill., and Paul Marchi (Judy) of Palatine, Ill. Duchossois had seven grandchildren (and spouses), two step-grandchildren, and fourteen great-grandchildren.
Duchossois’ first wife, Beverly, and their beloved son, R. Bruce Duchossois, predeceased him in 1980 and 2014, respectively.
As a result of COVID-19, to ensure the health and safety of others, there will be no visitation. The funeral and burial services will be immediate family only. In memory and in lieu of flowers, you may want to consider a donation to a favorite organization of your choice, the National WWII Museum, 945 Magazine Street, New Orleans, LA 70130, or Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital, 450 West Highway 22, Barrington , IL 60010.
Up to his final days, Duchossois could be found at his desk planning his next venture, legal pad and pen in hand. To use the Miracle Million team’s motto—which Duchossois loved and had printed on post-cards—”Quit? Hell No!”
No doubt Duchossois is marching on to his next tour. We salute you, soldier.