04/30/2014 12:40PM

Arlington begins meet but turf course not quite ready

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Arlington hopes to begin turf racing next week. A difficult winter has put the course behind schedule.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. – Much of American racing is leaving behind a decade-long dalliance with synthetic surfaces, but Arlington has no stated intention of abandoning its synthetic main track.

Year 8 of Arlington’s Polytrack era commences Friday, when the first of 89 programs this spring, summer, and early autumn will be conducted. Oil was added last fall, and new fibers might be mixed in during this meet, but no significant offseason work was performed on Arlington’s Polytrack, first used in 2007. Arlington was part of a mini-revolution then, as several tracks across North America switched from dirt to synthetic, but that trend has reversed, and in the last five months, both Del Mar and Polytrack pioneer Keeneland said they were ditching synthetic main tracks for dirt.

Arlington has no plans for a similar move.

“What’s happened hasn’t changed our position,” said general manager Tony Petrillo. “Right now, statistically, our data shows Arlington has one of the safest tracks in the country.”

The main track will be put to maximum use early this meet. It’s May but looks and feels like March, the Chicago area still under the spell of a brutal winter and a very late spring. Bitter cold froze pipes in Arlington barns that only recently have been repaired, belatedly permitting summer residents to return. Worse, the vaunted Arlington turf course is not ready for use.

“It was such a miserable winter, the turf hasn’t had any chance to grow and really root yet,” said Arlington racing secretary Chris Polzin. “We’re going to be very cautious about it. We’ve got five months to run on it.”

Arlington hopes – and it’s only hope, with cold, wet weather predicted for a week – that the turf will be ready for use next weekend, and grass racing is important at this meet: Races on Polytrack during 2013 averaged 7.46 starters per race, while turf races drew an average of 8.74 starters.

Only 66 horses were entered in the nine Polytrack races carded for Friday. Work tabs have been light since the track opened for training, and the Arlington backstretch only housed about 1,000 horses as of Tuesday. The stables can accommodate 2,000, and Polzin doesn’t expect to approach that number for at least a couple of weeks.

“I think eventually we’re going to be fine with numbers,” he said. “It might take a little longer than usual.”

Racing surface is not the only looming issue here. This is the final season during which impact fees garnished from the gross profits at the highest-earning Illinois casinos will be commingled with purse money generated through betting handle, and impact fees account for about $40,000 of the $220,000 in overnight purses offered daily at this meet.

Illinois racetracks long have lobbied state government to be allowed to operate slot-machine parlors, coming close in 2012 and 2013, but during an election year and in the face of a saturated gambling market, support for statewide gambling expansion has quieted this spring.

Keeneland’s ongoing racing-surface conversion has sent some horsemen who usually summer there to Arlington. Mike Maker will have a string here for the first time, and Eoin Harty, who has shipped from Keeneland in the past, has 16 Arlington stalls.

Wayne Catalano, who easily won the 2013 training title with 70 winners, will have his usual strong Arlington presence. Catalano’s firepower this season might be slightly diluted since he’s running concurrent strings at Churchill and Belmont, but his outfit, despite its popularity in Chicago, still managed to produce a $2.01 return on investment last season. Pavel Vashchenko was the local ROI king in 2013, his eight winners good for a $3.98 ROI, and with far more horses at his disposal this summer – Vashchenko has 60 Arlington stalls and a Florida farm packed with stock – the stable will have a major presence this season.

Most of the top end of the 2013 jockey colony returns, including last year’s leading two, Manny Esquivel and James Graham, while Sheldon Russell is the best-known newcomer. Esquivel thrived at Arlington in great part because he so often stayed inside with his mounts: The rail was golden on Polytrack much of last season, and the main track here often displays notably strong trends.

Arlington opened its 2013 meet with account wagering in Illinois blacked out because arguments about how the takeout from such bets should be distributed led to inaction by the Illinois legislature. A deal to renew account wagering this past winter placed a mandatory surcharge on bets taken throughout Illinois, but Petrillo said Arlington would not impose an additional voluntary surcharge permitted tracks under the account-wagering law.