(First of a three-part series.)
They sold the trees. And even the nacho cheese.
In its divestiture of Arlington Park’s assets, parent company Churchill Downs, Inc. left no stone unsold. Twenty auctions held over six months saw nearly everything sell, from Richard (“Dick”) Duchossois’ opulent penthouse furnishings to commercial kitchen equipment to furlong poles. It had the vibe of a fire sale, but unlike 1989, Arlington will not rise from the ashes.
You probably know the sad story. Illinois racing fans lived it. On July 31, 1985, Arlington Park, then 58 years old and already rich in racing history, burned to the ground. In the early-morning hours, a fire that reportedly started in the ceiling of the horsemen’s lounge jumped over to the grandstand, spectacularly engulfing it. The inferno raged out of control for 14 hours.
Arson was ruled out, but the actual cause of the blaze was never determined. Most onlookers thought the 1985 Arlington Million, scheduled for Aug. 25, would be canceled, but they should have known better to never bet against Dick Duchossois, the track’s managing partner.
Affectionately nicknamed “Mr. D.,” the affable but hard-charging Duchossois cracked the whip on both the demolition crew and Arlington staff and out of the (literal) ashes rose what came to be known as “The Miracle Million.” Temporary tents and bleachers created a fair-like atmosphere, and over 35,000 fans saw Teleprompter narrowly defeat Greinton. Arlington was given a Special Eclipse Award for pulling off a miracle, the first racetrack to be so honored.
In 1986, Duchossois bought out his partners so he could build the racetrack of his dreams, grander, larger, and inspired by the European racing he loved. Using his personal wealth and sparing no expense, he built – at an estimated cost of $175 million – what many have called “the most beautiful track in the world.” After only 19 months of construction, the track, newly christened “Arlington International Racecourse,” opened on June 28, 1989.
“Mr. D.” was notoriously demanding and frequently irascible, but he developed a team known for world-class customer service in a world-class facility.
You could often spot him strolling through the grandstand, alternately quizzing patrons on what he might do better and stooping to pick trash off the marble floors. Not an inch went unpainted or unkempt; even on dark days the place shone.
And talk about racing history. Many of the sport’s greatest stars – equine and human – won at Arlington. Buckpasser, Citation, Dr. Fager, Nashua, and Round Table (to name a few) all won stakes there. Secretariat’s next start after winning the Triple Crown came at Arlington. In 1996, Cigar tied Citation’s record of 16 consecutive victories in the Arlington Citation Challenge, a race created just for the occasion. Hall Of Fame jockeys Earlie Fires and Pat Day are Arlington’s first and second leading riders by number of races won…and always will be. Large Midwestern stables opted to base at Arlington for the summer, eschewing Saratoga or Del Mar. But all that changed as the 1990s wore on.
When the Illinois legislature refused his demands for a share of riverboat casino revenue, Duchossois shuttered the track in 1998 and 1999. In September 2000 Arlington Park merged with Churchill Downs, Inc. (CDI). Even hosting the 2002 Breeders’ Cup could not revive the track; competition for the local gambling dollar increased throughout the decade and purses invariably slid, hitting a 10-year low in 2008. Marquee jockeys, trainers, and owners left for greener pastures…more money. Illinois horsemen butted heads with management, management sparred with the state racing board, and everyone fought with the state legislature.
Dick Duchossois resigned from CDI’s board of directors in 2017 and, at 97 years old, became chairman emeritus of the track and a minority shareholder in CDI. When a long-promised casino license finally became available – revenue to fuel purses – CDI reneged. (It had, after all, become a majority owner in a casino just 10 miles away.)
Racing at Arlington was nearing the finish line.
In February 2021, CDI hung a For Sale sign on Arlington’s 326-acre parcel. Several bidders emerged, including a partnership that wanted to keep racing (and likely offer casino gambling) despite CDI’s stated position that it would not sell to anyone who liked horses. Mere days after the last race on Sept. 25, 2021 – the final crowd filed out as “Closing Time” blared over the PA system – the Chicago Bears NFL franchise announced it was the winning bidder at $197.2 million and planned to build a new stadium on the property.
The deal is expected to close early this year, though the neighbors are up in arms about using public money for some of the redevelopment and the City of Chicago has offered incentives for the team to stay downtown. The Bears organization estimates it will take 10 years to transform the property.
Before he died last January at age 100, Richard Duchossois was told CDI had sold the grand racing palace he’d built. “It’s almost like a statue,” he was quoted as saying. “Even statues get knocked down, too.” His son, Craig Duchossois, was less forgiving about Arlington’s demise. He blamed politicians for “killing it.” Another historic racetrack was gone.
Now, it was time to move out.
Tomorrow: In Pt. 2 of this three-part series, author Patti Davis looks at the range of auction items on which the public bid, from the ridiculous to the sublime.
A lifelong racing fan, Patti Davis helped catalog Arlington Park’s assets. She is a writer and editor based in Chicago.