Longtime Arlington Park Director Of Racing William Thayer Dies At 89

by | 09.30.2015 | 11:50pm
Bill Thayer
Bill Thayer

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.

  • Steve

    While managing an ITW facility in Southern California, I got a call to come down to the admission gate. Waiting there was Bill Thayer and his wife. He gave me his business card and asked if he and his wife could come in and look around. I said sure. As he was leaving, he told me that if I ever came to Arlington, to make sure I asked for him. A real class act

    • THE ENFORCER

      AGREED.. ONE CLASS ACT..

      RACING NEEDS MORE PEOPLE LIKE HIM–ESPECIALLY IN THE LAND OF LINCOLN..

      HE WILL BE MISSED..

  • Bobf

    I heard he was pure class.

  • David Stevenson

    “Bill was an extremely kind person and always extended a helping hand to many on the backstretch. We had some exciting times together in the Marg Everett era.”

  • John McEvoy

    All the years I covered racing, I never met anyone who loved it more, or had more fun in it, that Bill Thayer, a truly wonderful man.

    • Wiliam Nack

      I totally agree with John McEvoy. Bill loved racing as much as the air he breathed on every backstretch he ever visited, from Suffolk Downs to old Hialeah, from Saratoga to Del Mar, from old Jamaica to Golden Gate Fields. But his roots were deep into Chicago racing. I more than once sat in his office at new Arlington and talked about old Arlington and Washington Park and the horses who had run there, from Citation and Native Dancer to Swaps and Nashua to the king of turf, Round Table. He knew them all and had stories to tell about them all. A wonderful, colorful raconteur who was a beloved figure in racing from coast to coast; They don’t make ’em like Bill Thayer any more.

  • David Carrico

    Bill was how this business used to be defined. He was kind and would go out of his way to touch base with friends when he knew a few words of support could help. A gentleman who touched many . . . He will be missed.

  • nct3

    Bill was one of the good guys of racing. A gentleman through and through with a big heart, a keen wit and a fair-minded manner that will be missed by all who knew him. Rest in peace friend.

  • KSena

    I am very sad to read that Billy has passed away and none of his family or friends in New Mexico were notified. Several of his family members have been trying to get in touch with Billy since early this year. We have been blocked by Connie and by his grandchildren. Billy was not an orphan. He has immediate family in New Mexico. We will add Billy to our prayers everyday, and hope he knows now in heaven we tried to reach out and be there for him

    • Angela Chavez

      Thank you Kathleen – As you know your family was very special to my uncle Billy. He loved your parents dearly. They are together again! Angela

  • Kim Washington

    My mom and day Walter and Helen worked on the back stretch and loved Mr. Thayer. I remeber as a kid ma and my siblings use to mess with Phyllis(his daughter) its was like we all grew up together while at Arlington Park Race Track. He was such a nice guy.

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