Dick Duchossois, 95, still driving force behind Arlington Park

Before a breakfast meeting at Arlington International Racecourse, a plate of fresh fruit on a conference room table led to a healthy exchange with 95-year-old Chairman Dick Duchossois about eating right.

Duchossois, who passed on the pineapple and cantaloupe, recalled his mother refusing to excuse him from dinner until he had eaten all his spinach and cauliflower but laughed at the idea of a good diet leading to his longevity.

"I eat what I like,'' Duchossois said, sipping black coffee. "People say, 'How do you live so long?' I say you get challenges that get your adrenaline up. It's not all what you eat. Doctors can't say that, but it's true, at least for me.''

It was 8:30 a.m. and, like every morning, Duchossois already had been at the office for nearly 90 minutes. The racetrack, celebrating its 90th anniversary with Friday's opening, bustled with anticipation as workers finely manicured the grounds the way "Mr. D" insists. A yellow legal pad contained pages of handwritten notes Duchossois wrote preparing for his day. A full calendar greeted him at the door. As he prefers, Duchossois drove his white Mercedes from the house in Barrington Hills he shares with his wife, Judi, to the pristine horse racing palace off Route 53 he rebuilt after the fire in 1985.

"My alone time,'' Duchossois called his daily commute.

Impeccably dressed for success in a tailored dark gray pinstripe suit, gold tie and matching pocket square, Duchossois looked fit and trim, like a guy getting his money's worth from the personal trainer he sees twice a week. The cancer survivor who also has overcome quadruple-bypass heart surgery treats the workouts like just another thing on a lengthy to-do list. Everything Duchossois does to maintain his physical condition, even now, relates to the mental toughness developed at Morgan Park Military Academy that he believes made him who he is.

"My family asks me every day why (I keep working) and I don't know, but best I can tell, I went to a military academy for high school,'' said Duchossois, who grew up in Beverly. "That was really seven days a week, and you learned discipline. Then I went into the Army, and it was the only thing I knew. When I got back, I just didn't change.''

Duchossois always felt fortunate he returned at all from World War II.

A tank commander at Normandy who served under Gen. George S. Patton, Duchossois was shot in the side during a battle Sept. 15, 1944. Medics initially laid Duchossois' body alongside other casualties presumed dead at a field hospital, but somehow he wound up receiving treatment. After that near-miss, Duchossois celebrated two birthdays: the day he was born — Oct. 7, 1921 — and the September day his life got a second chance.

"I like the September one better because it makes me younger,'' Duchossois said.

After coming home a war hero with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, Duchossois provided for his first wife, Beverly, and their four children by successfully running his father-in-law's business, Thrall Car Manufacturing. His foray into the sport of kings was accidental.

"I wasn't a big horse racing fan,'' Duchossois admitted.

But when his son, Bruce, was a teenager, Duchossois bought the animal lover a show horse with the hopes the hobby would help improve the boy's grades. Eventually, the family converted a dairy farm into a thoroughbred operation, and Duchossois became the leading breeder in Illinois. In 1983, three years after Beverly's death, Duchossois took his first trip to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby. Former Arlington executives Joe Joyce and Sheldon Robbins, looking for buyers, approached Duchossois at a Derby party where the mint juleps were flowing.

"I said no, but after the fifth race I said, 'I'll take 10 percent,' '' Duchossois said. "I forgot all about it and a month later got a phone call. Nobody else had any money, so we ended up buying the whole thing.''

Officially, Duchossois purchased Arlington from Gulf and Western for $17.8 million. In the years that followed, Duchossois only occasionally went to the track. Everything changed in the wee hours of July 31, 1985.

An electrical fire started in the ceiling of the Horsemen's Lounge. At a party with late actress Phyllis Diller, who was in town to appear on "Oprah,'' Duchossois received his first call that the fire wasn't serious. A second call came an hour later saying it had spread but was under control. At 3:30 that morning, Duchossois' phone rang again.

"They said, 'You better get over here,' '' said Duchossois, who hopped into a helicopter and headed to Arlington Heights.

It took 200 firefighters from 21 communities more than nine hours to extinguish the blaze, which reduced a structure built in 1927 to ashes and rubble. Yet 26 days later, thanks largely to Duchossois' determination, the Arlington Million — referred to that year as the "Miracle Million" — ran as scheduled. And over the next 18 months, feeling a responsibility to the local economy, Duchossois invested $200 million to rebuild Arlington into the gleaming facility it remains.

"Everyone said it couldn't be done after the fire, but I was fortunate enough to serve under George Patton in Europe, where we didn't know things couldn't be done, we just did them,'' Duchossois said.

Last year, 650,000 people walked through the gates of Arlington Park. Duchossois enjoys the regulars, especially former Bears wide receiver Johnny Morris, who "is at the top of anybody's list of handicappers.'' Arnold Palmer and Mickey Rooney liked stopping by when visiting Chicago. Mike Ditka brings an entourage and a standing request for privacy. Joel Quenneville is just another mustachioed man at the window. Duchossois enjoys soaking it in every day, making all the political squabbles over slot machines and schedules worth the investment for the reluctant horse racing mogul.

"You don't plan life, it floats into you,'' Duchossois said. "Some would say I'm a workaholic, but that's just how I live.''

Nothing summed that up better than the postcard Duchossois gave his visitors at the end of a guided tour. On the front is a color photo of the clubhouse and grandstand destroyed by the fire 32 years ago, with three tractors working on the track surface.

Above the wreckage are three words in capital letters: "QUIT? HELL NO!"

dhaugh@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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