The approximately 175 members and guests of the Thoroughbred Club of America who braved a cold, winter night Jan. 9 to attend the organization’s annual Testimonial Dinner heard a warming, optimistic view of racing from Richard L. "Dick" Duchossois, an industry icon best known for his success as operator of Arlington Park in suburban Chicago.
Acknowledging that North American horse industry faces some challenges, especially the highly publicized economic downturns in the breeding and racing industries, the 89-year-old Duchossois said the industry is in a transition phase that should make it poised for a bright future.
"This industry isn’t dying," Duchossois said. "There is no way we could ever think it is dying. Nor is it on life support. It has too much to offer and we’re not going to waste it...I am optimistic because you are going to change the face of racing."
Duchossois said much of his bullish view of the industry’s future is based on the transitions it is now undergoing. He noted the successful marketing efforts by Keeneland and Churchill Downs Inc., which now owns Arlington Park, to attract a more diverse and younger fan base as examples of ways in which racing is making the changes necessary to survive.
"We’re reinventing how we’re doing business. Everyone in this room is doing business differently than you did two years ago, three years ago, five years ago. We have to put our heads together and get a clearer picture of the future. But it’s up to all of us, using all the strength, all the power, and all the knowledge that we can...to build this industry," Duchossois said. "Stay positive; we have to be our own cheerleaders."
Also, Duchossois said, with far fewer patrons attending the races and preferring to place wagers on horses via electronic media or at off-track locations, tracks will need to diversify and intensify using their facilities for other events.
During his presentation to the TCA members at Keeneland Racecourse, Duchossois cited examples of how he and others have risen to the occasion when faced with seemingly overwhelming obstacles, not unlike the challenges now facing racing.
For example, when a major rail-car company attempted to block Duchossois from entering that business by having Chicago’s banking establishment refuse to loan money to the upstart, the then-young businessman successfully obtained the much-needed funds from a newcomer to the banking scene. The company that sought to maintain its rail-car monopoly has long since gone and The Duchossois Group is a diversified corporation with more than 6,000 employees and more than $2 billion in assets.
Duchossois said his ability to get money from a new bank to help his company venture into rail-car production is not unlike racetracks that are now using, or seeking, revenues from alternative gaming to help sustain them.
"We have to be able to have money, as we (Duchossois’ rail-car company) needed the small bank, from sources other than what we have now. But this in no way means we will be giving up our core business, which is horse racing. But until we pull ourselves together and find these new innovations and re-invent the way we are doing business now, we need that extra supplement of money to come in."
Duchossois said horse racing needs to capitalize on the recent publicity generated by release of the "Secretariat" movie and success of supermare Zenyatta to attract new farms.
"Let’s put our voices together and help spread the word. We will bring so many more people in to enjoy what we have been enjoying—the thrill, the challenges, the excitement of horse racing. It is a great sport with a rich history and tradition of probably no other industry in this country. I’m optimistic; I’m very optimistic."
A horse owner and breeder, Duchossois elevated Arlington Park in stature under his ownership. He is affectionately known as "Mr. D" by many Arlington employees who see him on a regular basis. His attention to detail and drive to make the track a success are renowned, especially the effort to continue operations despite a fire that destroyed the track’s grandstand three weeks prior to its premier race, the Budweiser Arlington Million (gr. IT). Arlington employed crews to work around the clock to clear the debris and 25 days later, using temporary seats and huge tents, the race and went off without a hitch.
For its efforts in staging the "Miracle Million," Arlington received the first of three Eclipse Awards awarded the track.
In his introduction of Duchossois, Keeneland trustee emeritus and previous Honored Guest Ted Bassett said the honoree’s business success "is a sterling example of a family mission committed to a high standard of ethical and moral conduct along with a strong sense of civic duty and community responsibility."
A long-time director of Churchill Downs Inc. and a member of The Jockey Club, Duchossois was honored with an Eclipse Award of Merit in 2004 for his contributions to racing.
In 2002, Duchossois was named a co-winner of the National Thoroughbred Writer’s Association Joe Palmer Award for "meritorious service to racing" and Duchossois personally received the 2004 Eclipse Award of Merit, in recognition of his lifetime achievements in Thoroughbred racing. Duchossois had a sentimental victory at his track last year when his horse Eclair de Lune won the Beverly D. Stakes (gr. IT), a race at Arlington Park named after the track owner's late wife.
On the international front, Duchossois has received the Gold Medal from The Jockey Club.
Also during the dinner, TCA president Ed Saunier presented Richard F. "Happy" Broadbent IV with the director of the year award.