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Arlington Park chairman hasn’t forgotten friends lost in WWII

Posing paddock areis ArlingtPark Chairman Dick Duchossois who turns 90 October this year after sitting down for an interview Friday

Posing in the paddock area is Arlington Park Chairman Dick Duchossois, who turns 90 in October this year, after sitting down for an interview on Friday, June 17, 2011 in Arlington Heights. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Arlington million

What: 29th Arlington Million, part of Arlington Park’s International Festival of Racing; also includes $750,000 Beverly D. and $400,000 Secretariat.

When: Post time for Saturday’s 12-race card is 12:30 p.m. ­Million post time is 5:15. Gates open at 10 a.m.

TV: 5 p.m., Ch. 9.

Updated: October 3, 2011 1:10PM

Dick Duchossois knew this time would come.

The Arlington Park chairman and World War II veteran turns 90 on Oct. 7. He stopped hosting reunions for his Army buddies at his Barrington Hills farm because only two men from his original officer outfit remain.

“It’s not that they were killed, but it’s that we are all getting old,” Duchossois said. “I was the youngest person in my company, and I’m at an age now where there aren’t many of [us] left.”

Duchossois has seen the horrors of war; the birth of four children, seven grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren; and the resurrection of his beloved Arlington Park from a fire 26 years ago. When the park hosts the 29th Arlington Million and the 22nd Beverly D. on Saturday, Duchossois will be watching a sport that might see its biggest upheaval yet as he reflects on a storied life.

‘You’re in the Army’

Duchossois had a story for everything and was prepared to use another when he was summoned to the dean’s office at Washington and Lee University in February 1942. But the 20-year-old wasn’t expecting what he heard.

“Pearl Harbor had just happened, and everyone was excited about [the war],” Duchossois said. “[The dean] said, ‘Mr. Duchossois, I have your resignation from college.’ And I almost went through the roof. He said, ‘You’re in the Army.’

“By the time I got back to my room and started packing, I thought, there’s a war on and I’m in it.”

Duchossois reported to Camp Robinson in Little Rock, Ark., to begin the journey. The Army put together a new tank destroyer unit, which was Duchossois’ first assignment.

He was sent to Europe in the spring of 1944, but his first major battle was in August when his unit was fighting to close the Falaise Pocket in France. Duchossois survived getting shot protecting the Moselle River later that year, an injury that temporarily paralyzed him and kept him in a Paris hospital for a few weeks.

Duchossois doesn’t talk about the war much, but he said that the most important lesson he learned was not to get too close with the people in your command.

“You are going to lose them — you just don’t know when,” Duchossois said. “That happened to some of my closest friends [during the war]. You see some things that you don’t like to describe and talk about.”

Duchossois’ daughter, Dayle Duchossois-Fortino, said her father finally seemed to be able to talk about the war when they went to Fort Benning (Ga.) earlier this year and Duchossois was inducted into the Order of St. Maurice. Duchossois told war stories of such detail and emotion that Duchossois-Fortino could have sworn they happened the day before.

Slotting success

If Gov. Pat Quinn signs a gambling bill that already was passed by the Illinois House and Senate, slot machines will be installed in Arlington Park. Duchossois knows that’s a good thing.

“When the casinos came into Illinois, they took anywhere from 38 to 42 percent of our business away from us,” Duchossois said. “All we have been asking for is a level playing field, and if we can get slot machines here, it gives us the shot in the arm that we need so we can keep building the thoroughbred industry.”

The horse racing industry is changing, with more wagering done away from racetracks. Duchossois said about seven years ago that 90 percent of wagering was done at the tracks. Now, 90 percent of wagering is done away from the tracks.

For tracks such as Arlington to make money, Duchossois said, people need to wager on site because the track gets a bigger return. If people win, there is a better chance they will stay at the track and bet more money.

Ageless wonder

Duchossois doesn’t think about mortality. He’s as spry as someone in his 60s and shows no signs of slowing as he walks around Arlington, greeting fans and shaking their hands as they call out to him by name. It’s as if he knows everyone.

“He feels a strong responsibility to live every minute for those soldiers who never left the battlefield, never had the chance to raise a family and never got to live a full life,” Duchossois-Fortino said. “Those men have lived beside and inside him for over 70 years.”

And perhaps if Duchossois stops to think about death, it will come sooner rather than later.

“I don’t think it is necessarily from being in the service, but the fewer of your friends that are around, you start thinking, ‘How much time do I have left?’ ” Duchossois said. “Thinking bad things can become a disease, and it can conquer your life. If you don’t think positively and look for the future, you’re never going to get there.”

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