William A. Thayer, whose nearly 50-year association with Arlington Park in Chicago's northwest suburbs dates back to the Marjorie Everett ownership era in the 1960s, died on Tuesday at the age of 89.
Mr. Thayer first came to Arlington in 1964, serving as racing secretary and steward before moving on to a position with the Balmoral Jockey Club. He had short-lived jobs at Finger Lakes and at the Illinois Racing Board, but Arlington Park has been his home since 1972. He served in various capacities and under different ownerships, most recently as senior vice president of racing, but his dedication to getting the best horses to the track's biggest races never wavered.
He singlehandedly recruited Triple Crown winner Secretariat for a special race in 1973. In 1980, he convinced Bud Delp to bring the great Spectacular Bid to contest the Washington Park Handicap, and fans responded by setting wagering records. The following year, for the inaugural running of the Arlington Million, Mr. Thayer got John Henry and The Bart from Southern California, and John Henry's victory by a desperate nose put that race on the map for good.
In 1996, Mr. Thayer and track owner Richard Duchossois wrote a special race, the Arlington Citation Challenge, bringing Horse of the Year Cigar to Illinois to register his 16th consecutive victory, equalling the streak set by Citation.
Nearly 50 years earlier, Mr. Thayer had seen Citation race.
Trainers like the late Hall of Famer, Bobby Frankel, loved bringing horses to Arlington Park because of Bill Thayer. “He was always great with horses and the horsemen,” said former trainer Jenine Sahadi, who remembered bringing Fastness to the Arlington Million in 1995 and that Mr. Thayer had “tons of bottled water” delivered to the horse.
European horsemen flocked to Chicago's International Racing Festival, in large part because they trusted Bill Thayer to run a first-class operation.
Longtime Chicago jockey agent Tom Morgan told the Daily Herald that Mr. Thayer was an “insider's insider” and that “if you wanted to know something, or had to have something done, he had the biggest phone book (of contacts) I have ever seen. He knew everyone.”
An orphan who grew up at Boys Town near Omaha, Neb., Mr. Thayer never forgot his roots. He was a longtime donor and supporter of the organization that has helped countless at-risk children and their families.
Mr. Thayer first found the racetrack in 1945 during his college years at Creighton University in Omaha. He learned of a job opening at the local track, according to a 1989 article in the Chicago Tribune by Neil Milbert, and borrowed a quarter for the streetcar and bus ride to a place called Ak-Sar-Ben. He knew nothing about where he was going.
“I`d never been on a racetrack in my life,” he told Milbert. “On the way over I was daydreaming. I thought it was an auto racing track, and I was hoping I could work in the pits.“
Instead, he was hired by racing secretary Raleigh Leigh Sr. to mop floors, but soon was promoted to run money for the mutuels manager. Leigh found out later that Mr. Thayer spoke Spanish and set him up to work as a jockey's agent for some newly arrived riders from Mexico.
It wasn't love at first sight.
“For me, the racetrack was a means of paying for my education and existing,“ Mr. Thayer told Milbert.
When he graduated with a bachelor of science degree in business, Mr. Thayer went to work for an insurance company, and, by his own account, did very well. “But I was the most miserable man in the world,” he told Milbert. “All I thought about was the racetrack. One day, after about 11 months of this, I decided I wasn`t going to stay miserable for the rest of my life. I went back to the racetrack.“
And never left.
Mr. Thayer was named the Chicago HBPA's “Man of the Year” in 1971, and in 1986 he was awarded the “Good Guy Award” by the Illinois Harness Horsemen's Association. In 2001, he was the inaugural recipient of the Arlington Lifetime Achievement Award.
Mr. Thayer is survived by a daughter, Phyllis Fess, and several grandchildren.
According to the Daily Herald, services are scheduled at 11 a.m. (CDT) on Friday, Oct. 9, at St. Colette Catholic Church, 3900 Meadow Drive, Rolling Meadows, IL 60008, with visitation from 9-10:30 a.m. that morning at Meadows Funeral Home, 3615 Kirchoff Rd, Rolling Meadows, IL 60008.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story had the date of the services incorrect.
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