11/27/2006 1:00AM

Joe Joyce, a founder of Arlington Million, dies


Joe Joyce, a former part-owner of Arlington Park and one of the founders of the Arlington Million, died on Monday morning at Desert Regional Hospital in Palm Springs, Calif, his family announced. Joyce, who had been in failing health for six months, was 77.

Joyce had a long and varied career in horse racing that took him from his native New York to Wyoming. The highlight of his career, however, was the launch of the Arlington Million in 1981, the first million-dollar race in North America and still one of the most prestigious turf races in the world.

Joyce had arrived at Arlington in 1976 as its president. At the time, Arlington was owned by Madison Square Garden, whose president, Sonny Werblin, embraced the idea of the Million when Joyce proposed it in 1980. A year later, the race was run for the first time and won by John Henry en route to his first Horse of the Year title.

"Joe was an entrepreneur back when those folks used to run racetracks," said Joe Harper, the president of Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, who first met Joyce in the early 1970's. "He had a sense of knowing what people wanted and he had the ability to give it to them in spectacular ways."

Prior to arriving at Arlington, Joyce helped establish the Race Track Industry Program at the University of Arizona. At the time of its launch in 1974, it was the only racetrack management college program in the country.

Joyce began his racing career in 1971 as general counsel of New York City OTB. He was hired by Madison Square Garden in 1974, and was asked to head Arlington's management team in 1976. In 1983, after a brief stint at the bet-processing company AmTote, Joyce returned to Arlington Park, but this time as a part-owner. In 1987, Joyce accepted a buyout offer from another part-owner, Richard Duchossois.

Arlington's owners received a special Eclipse in 1985 after the track staged the "Miracle Million" just three weeks after a fire consumed the grandstand.

In 1990, Joyce purchased Wyoming Downs, a small track in Evanston. He sold the track in the late 1990's.

"I think if you would have asked him, he would have said that he had the most fun of his racing life out in Wyoming," his son Eugene said.

Joyce is survived by his wife of 52 years, Elizabeth, and seven sons and six daughters.