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For Duchossois, no opening day is the same
By Sheila Ahern | Daily Herald Staff

Arlington Park owner Dick Duchossois earlier in the week looks over the Paddock Circle where the horses are paraded before a race, making sure that it is in tiptop condition.

 

Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Richard Duchossois stands in the paddock on opening day at Arlington Park. Duchossois, 87, spends weeks making sure Arlington Park is ready for opening day.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Karley Nawrocki of Elk Grove Village sits on her dad Brian Nawrocki's shoulders to get a better look at the horses in the paddock before the first race on opening day at Arlington Park.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Randy Bucio of Arlington Heights and Rita Busby of Palatine go over their picks before the first race on opening day at Arlington Park. This year is the track's 82nd anniversary and the 27th running of the Arlington Million will be on Aug. 8.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Sam Owen, No. 6, wins in a photo finish in one of the races on opening day at Arlington Park.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

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Published: 5/1/2009 5:50 PM | Updated: 5/1/2009 8:12 PM

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Ten minutes before Arlington Park officially opened for the season on Friday, Richard Duchossois was up in the luxury suites, frowning at a large round table.

"It's too big," he said to a nearby waitress. "I don't think wheelchairs can get through this aisle. Any way we could change it?"

Dressed neatly in a suit and tie, he walked away before hearing the entire answer.

Of course it would be changed.

Like most opening days, Duchossois - or "Mr. D" - arrived at the track seven hours before the first race on Friday - before the bathroom lights were on or the elevators running. Duchossois has been the track's chairman for more than 20 years and on opening day everything has to be perfect. His favorite saying is "don't expect what you didn't inspect."

So he does - food court and bathrooms included. He sat at different tables to make sure each seat had a good view and chatted with regulars to see if they liked some new television screens.

"Morning, sir" and "Hello, Mr. D" comments followed him down the halls.

For the most part, everything was all set. Even the potato chips bowls were full, although a few of flat-screen televisions weren't tilted quite right.

"Mind climbing some stairs?" the 87-year-old asked before heading up to check on the luxury table seating. A recent hand surgery hasn't slowed him down and he has no plans on retiring soon. After all, he's on his second iPhone.

Duchossois has been chairman of the track since he decided it should be rebuilt after a massive 1985 fire that gutted the grandstand and clubhouse. The next year, he bought out his three partners and the place has been his ever since.

When he rebuilt the structure, he rebuilt the image as well. He added women's bathrooms with diaper changing tables. He wanted picnic tables for families and a spotless food court.

"Tracks used to be old guys chomping on cigars, spitting on the floor and cheating a little," he said. "We erased all that. Here, it's about courtesy."

Today, plush green carpet leads up to Duchossois' office which includes a private bathroom and full living room set. His raincoat and hat were thrown over one of the chairs on Friday as he looked over the day's mail and table assignments in the luxury seating area. He dictated notes into a handheld recorder. Once the racing starts, he spends hours thanking people for coming. He doesn't bet on the races or eat a full meal. On opening day, Duchossois survives almost strictly on fresh popcorn.

With more than 20 opening days under his belt, he doesn't get nervous.

"You get nervous, you start forgetting things," Duchossois said.

After a 12-hour day, Duchossois planned to leave the track around 7 p.m. on Friday. Which for him is early. He's going to the Kentucky Derby on Saturday but will return to Arlington on Sunday - where he'll continue to concentrate on the little things he believes make the track great.

"Welcome back, let's have a good year," Duchossois said to a concession stand worker on Friday. "I'm coming back for a hot dog later. Save one for me."