01/10/2017 12:07PM

Sheldon Robbins, co-owner of Arlington during track's rise from ashes, dies at 78

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Sheldon Robbins, who was part of the ownership team that was honored with a Special Eclipse Award for its effort to put on the Arlington Million less than four weeks following a fire that destroyed the track’s grandstand, died on Monday of cancer, according to a family representative. Robbins was 78.

Robbins, a native of Chicago, was part of a four-person partnership that reached an agreement to purchase Arlington Park from Madison Square Garden Corporation in late 1983, along with Richard Duchossois, Joe Joyce, and Ralph Ross. Less than two years later, on July 31, 1985, Arlington’s grandstand burned to the ground in a spectacular early-morning fire, 25 days before that year’s Million was scheduled to be run.

At that time, the Arlington Million had been run only four times, starting in 1981, but it had attracted some of the best horses in the world – including John Henry, who won two of the three Millions he ran in from 1981 to 1984. Determined to run the Million despite the devastation of the fire, work crews were brought in to truck out the debris and then erect a tent city and temporary bleachers, working 20 hours a day for 21 straight days, breaking only to allow horses to train for four hours in the morning.

On the day of the race, 35,651 people showed up to watch the “Miracle Million,” which was won by Teleprompter. Later that year, Arlington Park was named the winner of the Special Eclipse, the first time a racetrack had ever been given the honor, considered one of the most esteemed awards in racing.

Robbins, who earned his CPA while working at Arthur Young from 1966-1972, was first introduced to Arlington Park when a former boss at the accounting company asked him to come aboard as the assistant treasurer of the track in 1972. Over the next 11 years, Robbins gradually worked his way up the ranks to eventually become CFO of both Arlington and Washington Park, the defunct Chicago-area track, as well as other properties also owned by the tracks’ parent company.

In 1983, he was hired as president of nearby Maywood Park before returning to Arlington in 1984 as co-owner and chief operating officer. At the time, the track was losing money, but “was quickly brought to profitability,” according to his family.

Robbins accepted a buy-out of his share in Arlington Park in 1986, handing control of the track to Duchossois. According to his family, Robbins stayed on as a consultant as the track was rebuilt at Duchossois’s direction, becoming one of the most well-regarded – and expensive – structures in U.S. racing.

Since retiring from Arlington, Robbins worked as a consultant, an entrepreneur, and civic leader. He also continued to dabble in racing, owning and operating the Robbins Family Racing stable, which has had 39 starts since 2013. Last year, the stable’s My Friend Flavin, who was named after a family friend, won the $100,000 Louisiana Champions Day Sprint Stakes.

Robbins is survived by his wife of 54 years, Barbara; his brothers Harrison and Mark; his daughter Ellen; his son Larry; and six grandchildren.