Country House won the 145th edition of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday after the horse that crossed the line first was disqualified. But the real winner – and it’s the same every year – was the Duchossois family, the biggest individual shareholder of Churchill Downs Inc.
Known as “the greatest two minutes in sports,” the race generates as much as 20 percent of Churchill Downs’s annual revenue, which topped $1 billion last year, fueled in part by the 127,000 mint juleps served over the weekend and hundreds of millions in gambling wagers on Derby day.
Dick Duchossois, a 97-year-old Chicago native known affectionately in racing circles as Mr. D, began to build his fortune in earnest in 1952, when he became president of a railroad freight car manufacturer. Today, he and his family control 9 percent of Louisville, Kentucky-based Churchill Downs, whose shares have more than tripled in the past five years, pushing its market value to $4 billion.
The holding represents just a fraction of the family’s assets, which exceed $2 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. The Duchossoises, who declined to comment for this story, also own such varied interests as rail-car leasing, ophthalmology and companies that make garage-door openers and gate-operating systems. His son Craig is chief executive officer of the Duchossois Group, which holds most of the family’s assets, and daughter Kimberly is chairman of the Duchossois Family Foundation.
The clan’s fortune can be traced back to Thrall Car Manufacturing Co., where Dick Duchossois became president at age 30. In 1983, a few years after the death of his wife, Beverly, the Duchossoises bought out the Thrall family and renamed the firm Duchossois Industries Inc. It was the same year that Dick took his first trip to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby, he recounted in a 2014 interview with BloodHorse.
“I just wanted to see what it was like,” he said, though “not because of a love of horses, not because of a love of racing.”
During that trip he met two executives from Arlington International Racecourse in Illinois, who were looking for someone to buy their track, according to a 2017 Chicago Tribune profile of Duchossois.
“I said no, but after the fifth race I said, ‘I’ll take 10 percent,’” Duchossois told the newspaper. A month later he got a phone call. “Nobody else had any money, so we ended up buying the whole thing.”
Two years later it burned to the ground, but Duchossois, a decorated World War II veteran who commanded a tank battalion during the invasion of Normandy, was undaunted.
“As it was burning, I visualized it would be rebuilt” he told BloodHorse. “There was never any question in my mind.”
He invested $200 million in Arlington’s reconstruction and it reopened in 1989. Then, in 2000, Churchill Downs acquired Arlington in a $71.5 million all-stock deal, and the Duchossois family has been the largest individual shareholder ever since.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.