01/23/2004 12:00AM

Mr. D. always stepped up

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The best way to measure the true weight of the Eclipse Award of Merit is to imagine what the Thoroughbred racing game would be like were it not for the accomplishments of the recipient.

For fans of "It's a Wonderful Life," this will sound like a familiar exercise. George Bailey got a glimpse of what the world would have been without him, and it wasn't pretty. To contemplate the history of American horse racing without such Award of Merit winners as Alfred Vanderbilt, John Gaines, Bill Shoemaker, Jimmy Kilroe, Paul Mellon, and Joe Hirsch would be a distasteful task.

In the case of Richard Louis Duchossois, winner of the 2003 Eclipse Award of Merit, the math is simple. No Duchossois, no Arlington Park. No Arlington Million. No Beverly D. No Arlington International raised from the ashes of the 1985 inferno. No 2002 Breeders' Cup for Chicago. And no partnership with Churchill Downs, thereby ensuring a degree of stability for Illinois racing.

When Duchossois takes the stage on Monday night in Florida, at the 33rd Eclipse Awards Dinner, don't expect a long, drawn-out speech that wanders down memory lane. His comments will be neatly trimmed to fit the occasion, efficiently delivered and to the point. Just like the man himself.

"I'm very shy about public speaking," Duchossois said this week from his Arlington Park office. "I'm not very articulate, so this is no cup of tea for me."

Fine, then how about a slide show?

Click. There's young Maj. Duchossois commanding a tank destroyer company in 1944 under Gen. George Patton as the 3rd Army tears across France toward Germany.

Click. There's Richard Duchossois, founder of a burgeoning rail car business, attending his first horse race at Washington Park on Aug. 31, 1955, to witness the Swaps-Nashua match race.

Click. It's 1983, and that is Duchossois, now a prominent Illinois owner and breeder, stepping up with three partners and supplying the bulk of the capital to purchase Arlington Park from the Madison Square Garden Co.

From the beginning, Duchossois put his stamp on the operation of Arlington. Details mattered, and none were too mundane - not bathroom lines, litter, or a smile on the face of an Arlington employee.

"I learned a long time ago that you never break your leg tripping over an elephant," Duchossois said. "You break your leg tripping over a crack in the sidewalk. If we don't get those cracks under control, we're lost."

Such attitudes were ingrained from his Chicago-area youth.

"I went to a military academy for high school," said Duchossois. "Then I only had a year and a half of college before I was called into the service. In the military, you have to do the little things to get the big things done. You have to be able to take a machine gun apart blindfolded and put it back together again. It is a way of life you get used to. It becomes automatic, and I think it's a good way to live.

"But for that matter, any job you do - whether it's building freight cars or garage door openers or running a racetrack - you have to give it the best shot and go with it. I just like a good challenge, because if you stop getting challenges in your life, you're just waiting to die."

The Duchossois mantra of customer service has permeated the operation of Arlington Park.

"When we first started at Arlington, people sort of laughed at us for building our business among women, making it a family-friendly operation," he said. "That really wasn't done in the racing industry. Racing in the late 80's always had the image of a bunch of old men chomping on cigars, spitting on the floor, cheating a little bit. I felt if we wanted to get families and increase attendance, we needed to clean that up. Now everybody tries to do it."

At the age of 81, Duchossois continues to exert his influence on both the management of Arlington Park and the game at large. When Mr. D. talks, people are smart to listen.

"Look at the Industrial Revolution," he said. "It took 150 to 200 years. Then take a look at what electronic evolution has done to the Thoroughbred racing industry in just 10 years. Ten years ago, 90 percent of all parimutuel wagering was done at a racetrack. Today 10 percent is done on the racetrack. The rest is telephone wagering, intertrack, OTB's, all the other things.

"In the railway supply industry, where we started out, we always tried to stay a little bit ahead," he noted. "Instead of building the same old boxcars, gondola cars, and flat cars, we found out what the customer wanted, then designed special freight cars to save him some money. In the same way, we have to reinvent ourselves in racing. Only there are many in our industry who haven't quite realized it."

In the end, Duchossois is not sure he deserves the mantle of indispensible, so typical of an Award of Merit winner.

"I just don't know about that," he said. "Maybe someone else might have stepped up."

And maybe he's right. Luckily, the game didn't have to find out.