10/11/2002 12:00AM

The Arlington story: From tumult, graft, and fire to a Breeders' Cup

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Arlington Park
The Arlington grandstand burns in 1985, just two years after being purchased by Dick Duchossois.

It was cold. It was raining, and the wind was blowing. So what else was new? It was autumn and it was Chicago - the western farming community of Arlington Heights, to be precise - and Curley Brown wasn't about to let a little weather get in the way of his grand opening day.

It had been 16 months since ground was broken on the $2 million racetrack to be known as Arlington Park. Brown's army of skilled laborers began flinging steel, cement, lumber, and paint into the project in June of 1926. Now it was Thursday, Oct. 13, 1927 - time to raise the curtain on what was being ballyhooed as America's Greatest Race Course.

At least, that's what the headline read in the local Arlington Heights Herald the following day. The Chicago Tribune called Arlington Park magnificent, "but only about 80 percent complete," while reports from the Associated Press took a more circumspect tone, describing the new track as "one of the most pretentious in America, with . . . club house quarters so gorgeous that the plant looked like a hotel."

It was an age of rampant boosterism, and Arlington Park was considered a ticket to Jazz Age prosperity for Arlington Heights (population 5,000) along with the surrounding Wheeling Township. By the end of that first, 16-day meet, the society swells and racing fans of metropolitan Chicago had enthusiastically embraced their new racetrack as the place to be. Anticipation was high for a longer, summertime season in 1928. Finally, the largest city of America's heartland had a top-class Thoroughbred emporium to call its own.

Seventy-five years later, Arlington Park stands on the threshold of having its first Breeders' Cup, to be run on the afternoon of Saturday, Oct. 26. The whole racing world will be watching, and Curley Brown would be pleased. The Breeders' Cup would be his cup of tea.

But to get from the point A of 1927 to the point B of 2002, Arlington Park had to survive three-quarters of a century's worth of tumult. There have been at least five major shifts in ownership, closures during war and peace, and disasters both physical and fiscal, mixing to create a lore as colorful as any great American sports franchise.

A good and crooked start

Some time after midnight, in the wee hours of July 31, 1985, Richard Duchossois returned to his farm in rural Barrington, from a party on the far South Side, only to be greeted by a telephone message that his racetrack was on fire.

By 4 a.m., Duchossois was in the parking lot, staring in disbelief as the Arlington grandstand burned. He and his partners had owned the track for barely two years.

"I'd never seen a big fire before," said Duchossois, whose family business built rail cars. "At one point I thought to myself, 'I hope it goes all the way and burns to the ground.' Even if they'd been able to save some of it, we would never be able to get the burn smell all the way out. People would always be reminded of what happened."

It was almost 60 years earlier, standing on the same piece of ground, that H.D. "Curley" Brown surveyed a thousand acres of rich Illinois farmland and envisioned a vast complex of stables and a racecourse, crowned by a magnificent grandstand - the grandstand that Duchossois watched burn. In some ways, the creation of the original Arlington Park was every bit as spectacular as its death by fire.

In "Chronicle of a Prairie Town," Brown is described by historian Tom Gaughan as "an aging, itinerant entrepreneur from California." He had a history of swooping into states with newly legalized parimutuel gambling, and then cashing in by setting up a racetrack.

By 1918, however, Brown figured he had built his last track. He bought 1,500 acres in the shadow of Mount Shasta, one of northern California's most striking landmarks, with its 14,162-foot elevation at the summit. He built a large house with five bedrooms and five bathrooms, and a 60-stall barn, complete with plumbing and electricity. His intention was to live out his days breeding great Thoroughbreds. To that end, he called his ranch Brownshasta.

But by 1924, Brown was itching for another challenge. When word reached him that Illinois had legalized parimutuel betting, he jumped at the chance to create one last monument to his imagination. Brown headed east, and acquired the backing of such Chicago tycoons as Laurance Armour, John Hertz, Otto Lehmann, and Frederick McLaughlin, all of them involved with horses. They put up $2 million to build Arlington Park, in an age when $825 would buy a Pontiac Six from Henry Schoppe's dealership in nearby Palantine.

The original Arlington Park was three levels and a basement, with elevators connecting the floors and seats for 18,000 spectators. Two private clubs catered to the gentry. An "Egyptian" ballroom was decorated with Arabesque flair.

Railroad detectives were hired to keep the riff-raff from mixing with high society, and there were separate betting rings for men and women. However, such propriety disappeared on the second Ladies' Day of the inaugural meet, which was so successful in boosting attendance that the sexes were allowed to mingle as they bet. No harmful effects were reported.

Brown, as it turned out, was a real operator. Despite what appeared to be booming business, the first season lost more than $100,000. Historian Gaughan reported that Brown skimmed $283,000 on land leases, $161,000 on construction costs, and about $60,000 from the betting pools.

Brown's enterprising methods apparently attracted more conventional criminals, who also recognized Arlington Park as a promising investment. After Hertz, Armour, and the other partners sent Brown packing back to California, they had to withstand a decidedly hostile takeover attempt from gangsters Frankie Lake and Terry Druggan. Newspapers reported that Lake and Druggan tried to shoot their way into the racetrack, probably to burn it down, but succeeded only in damaging a entrance gate.

A new era

In 1929, a group of Chicagoans took control of the track as the Arlington Jockey Club. Eleven years later, their investment diminished by the Great Depression, the members of the AJC sold the track to John Allen, of Brinks & Co., and Ben Lindheimer, who ran Washington Park racetrack. The purchase price was $1.6 million, less than the original price of the grandstand and stables.

Lindheimer was a building contractor and real estate developer, as well as an all-around sports aficionado who had a reputation as a pretty fair left-handed pitcher in his youth. Marjorie Everett, Lindheimer's daughter, was a teenager when her father bought Arlington Park, which was a choice piece of property even at its depressed value.

"It was Matt Winn who sold dad Washington Park," Everett recalled in a recent interview, referring to the impresario of Churchill Downs and the Derby. "My dad always said that track was forever one step ahead of the sheriff, but he should have waited till the sheriff got it."

After sprucing up old Washington Park, a relic of the 19th century, Lindheimer set about expanding and improving the more modern Arlington. Racing dates were coordinated with those at Washington Park to create a self-contained Chicago-area season. At Arlington itself, elevators and air conditioning were added to the grandstand. Seating capacity was nearly doubled. The turf course, built in 1934, was regraded to become the first in North America with banked turns.

With the sensibilities of a builder, Lindheimer had an eye for the smallest details. Bill Thayer, who has been part of the Arlington management for most of the last 40 years, recalls the day Lindheimer pulled him up on the backstretch and pointed to a groom with a bucket.

"He wanted to know why the guy was carrying a pail of hot water across the road to his barn," Thayer said. "I told him that most of the barns didn't have hot water. He couldn't believe it. The next day, plumbers were crawling all over the place, putting hot-water heaters in all the barns."

The pre-World War II highlight for Lindheimer was a crowd of 50,638, attracted on July 4, 1941, that remains Arlington's record - at least until the Breeders' Cup comes to town. By 1943, however, wartime limitations on travel, gasoline, and other vital goods required Arlington to close down and run its dates at Washington Park. It did not reopen until 1946.

Enter Duchossois

Richard Duchossois was back from the war by then, after five campaigns that included a tour of duty with Gen. George Patton's European troops as a leader of a tank destroyer company.

Horse racing was the furthest thing from Duchossois's mind. In fact, he had never even been to the track, despite the fact that he was born and raised in the Chicago area. After his discharge, he was busy expanding his family's core business, the manufacture of railroad cars, into the international company that became known as Duchossois Industries.

"My first trip to the track was to Washington Park, not far from where we lived, for the match race between Swaps and Nashua," Duchossois said. That was on Aug. 31, 1955.

"We were curious, and it was interesting, but I was not compelled to return," Duchossois went on. "It wasn't until I decided to build a farm and raise horses that I started to pay more attention to the racing business."

The 15 years or so between Duchossois's first racing experience and the creation of his Hill n' Dale Farm in Barrington proved to be a wild ride for Arlington Park.

In 1960, Ben Lindheimer died, leaving behind a family divided over the future of the track. Marjorie, by then married to racing executive Webb Everett, was determined to carry on her father's legacy in the face of a looming takeover by out-of-state interests.

"I thought I owed it to my father, and the horsemen and fans of Chicago to keep Arlington Park going," Everett said.

How she did it remains open to broad historical interpretation. Her friends and business partners characterized her tenure as energetic and expansive. Arlington increased its dates, attracted the best horses and jockeys in the country, and staged such extravaganzas as the 1962 Arlington-Washington Futurity. Its purse of $357,250 made it the richest horse race ever run.

Everett's tenure ended in controversy, however, when she was called upon to testify in the bribery trial of former Illinois governor Otto Kerner. By then, Gulf & Western Industries had merged with Arlington Park's parent company, Chicago Thoroughbred Enterprises, and by 1969 Everett was serving the track as general manager only. The following year, Everett was replaced by a former FBI agent named John Loome. Then, in 1971, Madison Square Garden bought Arlington Park from Gulf & Western.

The big, red shot in the arm

"Those were tough days," recalled Thayer, who returned to Arlington management under Loome. "The track kept coming up in connection with the Kerner trial, and people were starting to stay away. We needed something to put us back on the map the right way."

That "something" was Secretariat. In June of 1973, fresh from his sweep of the Triple Crown and cover-boy appearances on Time and Newsweek, the big red colt was in demand at every major track in the land. Suitors descended upon trainer Lucien Laurin, offering large purses and accommodating races. Thayer was dispatched by Loome to make the deal.

"I went to breakfast with Lucien at Belmont," Thayer said. "He told me he'd always been grateful for the favor I did him. I didn't know what he was talking about, but I thought I'd better just dummy up."

Eventually it dawned on Thayer that the "favor" was merely a hospitable gesture of tickets and a table for Laurin's Chicago area in-laws.

"I think what they really remembered was that I gave them a couple winners," Thayer said with a laugh.

Whatever the reason, Laurin was inclined to take Secretariat to Chicago. The trainer asked about the purse for the proposed Arlington Invitational, but Thayer was embarrassed to tell him.

"Lucien, I've only got $100,000," Thayer confessed.

"The horse belongs in Chicago," Laurin said. "Can you make it $125,000?"

Thayer took a deep breath and dove in.

"Yeah, why not," he replied.

Before he knew it, Thayer was on the telephone with Penny Chenery, Secretariat's owner, and hearing her say the words, "We're coming to Chicago."

"I felt a chill run through my entire body," Thayer said. "I still feel it to this day. It was the shot in the arm Arlington Park needed, and you should have heard the crowd after Secretariat won. They were shouting 'Penny! Penny! Penny!' as she went through the crowd, like she was Eva Peron."

Secretariat's appearance boosted attendance and handle through the rest of the meet, but it is not until 1981 that Arlington Park made major headlines again. That year, under the direction of president Joseph Joyce and through the inspiration of Daily Racing Form's Joe Hirsch, the world's first million-dollar Thoroughbred race was introduced.

It helped that John Henry, the most popular horse in the country, won that first Arlington Million. Today, million-dollar events are nothing special - the Breeders' Cup will have five of them, plus two worth $2 million and the Classic, worth $4 million. Still, there once was only one Million, and it belonged to Arlington.

It was also by the early 1980's that Richard Duchossois was turning more and more attention to the Thoroughbred business. He had become active in energizing the Illinois breeders' association, and he was convinced a healthy Arlington Park was vital to the state's breeding industry.

"When I heard Madison Square Garden might be selling, or tear down the track for land development, I thought something should be done," Duchossois said. "There was no grand plan. The intention was to preserve racing. I don't think many people even knew who I was."

Duchossois had partners with minority holdings - Sheldon Robbins, Ralph Ross, and Joe Joyce - but he stayed in the background, requiring only two things: "Zero scandal and profitability."

Then came the fire. Even as Duchossois watched the steel groan and melt and the embers smolder, he was bracing himself for the aftermath. The Arlington Million, now sponsored by Budweiser, was just 23 days away. Somehow the race had to be run.

"But NBC and Budweiser said they would not televise the Million if the wreckage of the track was still in the background," Duchossois said. "If that's what it took, okay."

Even from the distance of 17 years, the "Miracle Million" of 1985 still puffs Duchossois with pride. Days were reduced to hourly increments as the debris was hauled and the burn scar paved over. Tents appeared where rubble had been piled only days before. The work continued for three shifts a day, with a three-hour break in the morning so that horses could train and equipment could be repaired.

"After the sight of that beautiful old grandstand going up in flames, it was inspiring to watch," said Gene Cilio, a Chicago native and second generation trainer. "I think everyone felt like they were a part of history in the making."

On Aug. 25, Arlington opened its gates to 35,000 fans. The Million was run, as promised.

"Sometimes you do things because they have to be done," Duchossois said. "If you accept the responsibility to run a racetrack, you'd better damn well do it. And not for any glory, or thanks, or satisfaction. You do it because it's your job."

In 1989, the new Arlington rose from the memory of the old Arlington Park. It is this new, graceful work of architectural art that will be greeting fans when they arrive for the Breeders' Cup.

The new grandstand gave Arlington an initial boost, but the ensuing years have been challenging. Duchossois threatened to close the track in 1998 when legislation to give racing an equal footing with casino gambling stalled. The politicians thought Duchossois was bluffing, but they were wrong. Arlington went without racing for two years until more favorable laws were passed.

Then, in September of 2000, Arlington merged with Churchill Downs Inc. to form a powerful midwestern racing combine. The arrival of the Breeders' Cup adds one more feather to the cap of the man in charge, although Duchossois is the first to deflect credit.

"I'm over the hill," he protested. "We've got a great team here doing all the work, trying to anticipate what the fans will need on the big day."

And so, like Curley Brown 75 years before him, Duchossois has combined inspiration and hard work in an attempt to cover every possible base. Brown got most of it right, except for the wind, the rain and the cold. Duchossois laughed and offered his solution.

"I've got 167 vice-presidents in charge of weather," he said. "I'm hoping one of them will come through."