Sheldon Robbins, who one of his fellow Arlington International Racecourse owners called the linchpin in bringing together the 1985 “Miracle Million,” died Jan. 9 in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 78.
Robbins, along with Joe Joyce, Richard Duchossois, and Ralph Ross, was one of four owners of the Chicago area track who pulled off the “Miracle Million” edition of the Arlington Million (G1T) in 1985, just 25 days after the 58-year-old grandstand had burned. Using tents, temporary bleachers, and a “show-must-go-on” attitude, Arlington successfully welcomed 35,651 people to the track that day for the fifth edition of its signature race.
Robbins and the other owners were honored with a special Eclipse Award for their efforts.
“He was very organized and could be a hard taskmaster, but whoever worked with him—no matter what it was—they all loved him. They all wanted to work with him and for him,” Ross said. “The Miracle Million was really something. He helped put together the strategy to pull it off.”
Ross said it’s sometimes forgotten that Robbins also was running the Arlington meet that year, which other than Million day was conducted at Hawthorne Race Course.
“During that time he was so busy. I remember someone asking him if he was a twin,” Ross said.
In the weeks leading up to the 1985 Million that would be won by the Earl of Derby's Teleprompter, Robbins credited the faith of the Arlington workers.
“Look at all those flowers and shrubbery in the infield and paddock,” he said. “They’ve been tended to every day since the fire, anticipating we’d be back for the Million.”
Robbins initially worked at Arlington and Washington Park for 11 years, when the tracks were owned by Madison Square Garden, a subsidiary of Gulf and Western. He became chief financial officer during that stretch before becoming president of Maywood Park Race Track in 1983, where he placed an emphasis on customer service at the Standardbred venue.
In 1984, Robbins returned to Arlington as chief operating officer and part of a four-person ownership group that purchased the then money-losing track from Gulf and Western. Under his leadership, Arlington was quickly brought to profitability.
“When we bought the racetrack, I think they were losing $3 million a year when Gulf and Western owned it. In 1984 he turned it around to a profit of about a million dollars,” Ross said. “He knew how to get the most out of people and pinch pennies to make money. When he got into something, he threw himself into it and wanted to do the best he could.”
Robbins was bought out as a part owner in 1986 and stayed on as a consultant for the new Arlington facility. Since retiring from Arlington, he operated as a consultant, entrepreneur, and civic leader, including serving as president of the Stonegate Community Center and various charitable boards in Arizona.
In recent years he campaigned Thoroughbreds as president of Robbins Family Racing. That allowed him to share his love of horse racing with his wife, children, and grandchildren.
Robbins Family Racing’s My Friend Flavin, named in honor of Robbins’ late friend and fellow horseman Patrick Flavin, won the $100,000 Louisiana Derby Sprint in December.
Robbins was diagnosed with advanced-stage renal cancer in early December. He is survived by his wife Barbara, his brothers Harrison and Mark, his daughter Ellen (husband Paul), his son Larry (wife Sarahmay), and his granddaughter Alexa, along with his five grandsons Justin, Adam, Dylan, Ryan, and Zander.
A funeral service is planned for 10:30 a.m. Jan. 13 at Robbins Family Sanctuary at Congregation Beth Judea in Long Grove, Ill.