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Track marks 20 years since rebuilt grandstand opened
By Deborah Donovan | Daily Herald Staff

Arlington Park becomes a mass of twisted rubble from the effects of the fire on July 31,1985.

 

Daily Herald File Photo

Horses race during the grand opening of the new Arlington Park track on July 1, 1989.

 

Daily Herald File Photo

Horses race on the track on the grand opening of new Arlington Park facility in July 1989 just four years after a fire destroyed the original.

 

Daily Herald File Photo

Fans check out the horses in the paddock area on the grand opening of the new Arlington Park facility in 1989.

 

Daily Herald File Photo

Arlington Mayor William Maki addresses the audience on the grand opening of Arlington Park facility on July 1, 1989.

 

Daily Herald File Photo

Horses round the track during the running of the Miracle Million at Arlington Park on August 25,1985. Tents and bleachers replaced the old grandstand after the fire in July.

 

Daily Herald File Photo

Makeshift buildings are painted for the Miracle Million at Arlington Park in August of 1985.

 

Daily Herald File Photo

Bleachers are set up for the running of the Miracle Million on August 25, 1985 at Arlington Park after the fire in July.

 

Daily Herald File Photo

This is the private suite of Arlington Park Chairman Dick Duchossois.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Duchossois' personal study inside his private suite.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Riding silks given by Queen Elizabeth of England in honor of the "Miracle Million" are on display.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Arlington Park Chairman Dick Duchossois walks through the grandstand's main concourse, nearly 20 years after it opened.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

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Published: 6/27/2009 12:00 AM

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Amid the rebuilding of Arlington Park racetrack after the 1985 fire that destroyed the grandstand, Richard Duchossois and his daughter, Dayle, grabbed restaurant trays and hiked up a ramp.

Their mission: To see for themselves if the wait staff would have to labor too hard carrying food and drinks up to the new Million Room. The chairman of Arlington Park believes his staff should smile throughout the day, not be seen groaning from exertion.

And when they determined the angle was indeed too steep, the steel was torn out and the ramp to the Million Room restaurant redesigned.

As Arlington Park prepares to mark the 20th anniversary of the rebuilding of the Arlington Park grandstand - it will be celebrated between races on Sunday - Duchossois reminisced this week about his drive to save the track at its most precarious moment.

As he stood in the rain early in the morning of July 31, 1985, watching the fire burn and the magnificent grandstand crumble, Duchossois was already planning the rebuilding.

"I wanted to rebuild it new, modern and in a different way, make it the finest in the country, not repair it patchwork," says Duchossois, now 87.

He saw the rebuild as an opportunity to correct omissions or fix mistakes. Many features of the new clubhouse were inspired by Duchossois' visits to five or six other tracks.

"We didn't talk to the management, we talked to the patrons and asked them what they wanted," he said.

He wanted to cater to women, something no other track made a priority at the time. He saw women standing in line to use restrooms, and decided that wasn't going to happen at the new Arlington.

If women came and felt safe, they would bring their children or let them come with male relatives. Then new generations would learn to love horse racing.

Today, Duchossois thinks his track was the first in the country where half the patrons were women.

He also spurred the planting of willows, which block the view of Euclid Avenue and contribute to the track's pastoral feeling.

"At the old Arlington you couldn't tell if the horses were racing against each other or the cars on Euclid Avenue," said Duchossois.

Duchossois wanted the project completed in half the time such a massive project usually takes, so he and Dayle worked long hours that often put them ahead of the designers.

That meant she ended up choosing much of the decor and drew the symbol that still represents the track.

With two shifts of construction workers laboring seven days a week, the clubhouse that many call the finest in the world was finished in 19 months, for a reported $200 million. It opened on June 28, 1989.

The tale that the grand staircase was torn out and moved the day before the opening is apocryphal, but Duchossois did redesign it when it was still on the drawing board.

"They had wanted to put in two little staircases, and I didn't like that," he said, pointing to the wide expanse of marble.

Duchossois even picked the white paint for the bricks, and points out the still-bright finish is 20 years old.

Designers specified glossy enamel, but the chairman said a less expensive, more porous paint from Sears would hold up better.

And even though the roof was the largest cantilever in the world when it was built, no track visitors sit behind posts.

Most of all, it's clean. You don't see old pari-mutuel tickets lying on the floor-a tradition for grittier tracks.

"I wanted it to be nicer than the homes most people have, but not intimidating," he said.

On his desk today are postcard-sized copies of a photo of the ruined track taken the day of the fire. Printed on it is "Quit? Hell No!"

"I look at that when things aren't going the way they should," he said.

In the hours after the fire, the immediate problem was the fifth running of the famous Arlington Million, scheduled for just 23 days away.

The sponsor pulled out, the television network threatened to drop the show.

But one cheering sign was finding the trophy undamaged in a safe in the accounting office.

Demolition of the destroyed clubhouse started at a furious pace, and when the ruin was finally gone, tents and temporary seating went up. Crews could only work 20 hours a day because the horses needed time to exercise.

And the Miracle Million was run.

"We've always been very proud of Arlington Park," said Arlene Mulder, mayor of Arlington Heights. "It put us on the map globally. It's magnificent, and the credit has to go to Mr. Duchossois."

Arlington might be the only track in the country where attendance is up this year over last, said Duchossois, crediting the Internet for making it possible to market special promotions and events directly to the right customers.

And while he insists the track is profitable, he said if any of his family's other businesses made such a small profit they would be sold.