Dick Duchossois: The grand old man of Arlington

He was already past 60 when he bought the track that gave racing its first truly global stage and a mega-prize. He tells Chris McGrath of its 30 years

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The Independent Online

He lay on the stretcher, among the dead and dying. To the medics, overwhelmed by casualties, these were one and the same. The wounded had been divided with pitiless pragmatism. "They had to decide," Dick Duchossois remembers, 68 years later. "This guy over here, he can be patched up. But this guy here doesn't have a Chinaman's chance. And they had me in that group."

Paralysed, Duchossois felt all his fight ebbing into lassitude. He remembered an overrun flank, the sub- machine gun swinging from his hip. Turning his eyes ahead of his fire, seeing the German who had seen him first. Now, hit through the side, he could move only his head. He didn't give up, as such. But he had been running on empty so long, through days and nights of combat. Now he was lying down, sedated, absolved of responsibility.

Then, through the misting fatigue, he heard someone call out. "That one over there – you better bring him along." It was only when the litter was lifted that Duchossois realised the order concerned him.

That anonymous, instinctive intervention proved as momentous as it was inspired. For it would turn out that the young officer's spinal cord, by an infinitesimal margin, had not been severed. The nerves were only in shock. In time, that same tenuous thread would support one of the great fortunes of post-war America – and, more or less incidentally, haul an entire sport towards uncharted horizons.

On Saturday, in the suburbs of his native city, Duchossois presided over the 30th running of the Arlington Million, the prize that first lit a path for horseracing as an international sport. Though foiled in the Million itself, European runners won all three of the other big races. All week, moreover, the horsemen who brought them here had been visited at the quarantine barn by "Mr D" in person, trim and spry, checking whether anyone could do anything to help. One evening he took visiting owners and trainers on to Lake Michigan in his 198ft yacht, and watched proudly as they admired the Chicago skyline at dusk. He could do that every day, of course, if he chose. At 90, however, the notion of retirement fills him with revulsion.

"I had my first heart op in '81, and several others since," he says. "I have had cancer for four or five years now. But it's under control. And if you pay attention to your doctor, and let nature take its course, you're gonna keep going. You start worrying about the doggone stuff, that's what kills you. Yes, I'm going to retire. But only when they close the lid on that box. I'll have plenty of time to sleep then."

Presumably, it is no coincidence that one professing such cheerful indifference to mortality should have been so blessed with longevity. Lying in a Paris hospital, readied for a passage home, Duchossois was tormented by the thought of the unfinished battle. "All I could think about was getting back to my men," he says. "And eventually I did. We went Awol from the hospital, me and a British pilot in the next bed, who had lost a leg. We got out a window. We had a wheelchair, some crutches. And then the guys from my outfit picked me up. When I left the service, I'd had a few promotions [to the rank of major] but I was still Awol."

In front of him, as on every desk in his empire, is engraved the axiom: "Don't expect what you didn't inspect." He traces it to the day he instructed his platoon leader to site a machine gun in a vulnerable gully. Sure enough, the counter-attack came right through it. Once the Germans had been turned back, the remonstrations duly began. Where the hell was that gun? The platoon leader insisted he had done as ordered. "So I went to look, and he had put it up – in what he thought was the gully." Duchossois pauses, shakes his head. "It was getting dark, there was lots going on. But I hadn't gone to see myself."

It was practical enough to apply that lesson to 38 men, when he returned from the war to join his father-in-law's rail-car workshop. But the old tycoon still depends on the same philosophy pervading the 10,000 people now employed globally by the $2bn (£1.2bn) Duchossois Group. The transformation from little acorn to mighty oak began with custom-made freight carriages. "But providing product, that's mechanical," Duchossois says. "Customer service, people to people, is the most valuable thing we have. We figure we're never going to chase a dollar. If you have the best services you can, a quality product, and a competitive price, then we feel the dollar will catch us."

In 1985, two years after Duchossois bought Arlington Park, the grandstand was destroyed by fire. The Million was scheduled 25 days later. In the sumptuous facility that ultimately replaced it, there hangs a photograph of the smouldering debris. "Quit?" asks the caption. "Hell no!" On the appointed day, 35,000 duly watched "the Miracle Million" from temporary bleachers and a panoply of tents. "We worked 20 hours a day," recalls Duchossois. "It was a challenge. But I guess when everyone says something isn't going to happen, your ego says: 'I'm gonna show 'em.' All success comes from challenge."

The race was won by Teleprompter, trained in Yorkshire for Lord Derby. It was now clear that Luca Cumani's success with Tolomeo, a couple of years previously, had only been a start. "Those horses gave the people from Europe courage that they could come over and compete," Duchossois says. "You left all your clothes here, and filled up your suitcases with money."

His own fortune, however, enriches a thoroughly American mythology of opportunity and endeavour. His great-grandfather had arrived from France in Philadelphia, and Duchossois grew up with little conspicuous advantage beyond schooling in a military academy. "My folks sacrificed to get us an education," he says. "And I was not a good student. But I always wanted to be building something. And if you start something, and you're really devoted to it, you're going to succeed. You're going to get setbacks. But if you set your goal, and conscientiously work at it, you got an 80 per cent chance you're gonna get there."

Though Arlington is now part of Churchill Downs Inc – in which he has a major stake – Mr D plainly retains many goals for his tenth decade. And why not? He could easily have packed up at 70, after all, and missed out on another 20 years of stimulation.

"When I look at friends that retired early, most of them are gone now," he says. "Think how awful life would be, if you woke up every morning and just asked yourself: 'What time am I gonna play golf today?' Everybody needs some sort of goal, something to keep the adrenalin going. How many times can you look at this cathedral, that cathedral? Is there any challenge looking at something someone else did? Retirement is for fools."