09/25/2017 3:46PM

Arlington handle up from last year, but offers little reason to celebrate

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Arlington’s handle figures for the 2017 meet, which ended Saturday, were better than in 2016 – better, but still not good.

Arlington ran a 71-day meet with 596 races and 4,309 starters for an average of 7.23 starters per race. The average number of starters per race fell 3.4 percent from last year, yet handle was up across the board this summer compared to 2016. Gross handle was $141,265,505, an increase of 6.1 percent, while average daily handle of $1,989,655 was up 10 percent compared to 2016. Average handle per race, $237,022, was up 5.4 percent, and average handle per starter was up 8.6 percent to $32,784.

The betting beat pre-meet projections made by Arlington, and in August the track added eight $65,000 overnight stakes races because of a surplus in the purse account.

The unexpectedly solid showing relative to 2016, however, should not obscure long-term trends that paint a bleaker picture. In 2010, Arlington’s handle cratered, and compared to 2009, the last year before that steep decline, 2017 doesn’t look good at all.

Gross handle in 2009 was $364,337,701, about 157 percent more than this year. Average handle per race this year was 37.4 percent lower than in 2009, and average handle per starter was 32 percent lower.

Arlington has pared its racing schedule to the bone because of a decline in the horse population, and the 596 races this summer were the fewest in the track’s modern history. Race weeks early in the meet and late were just three days, and the majority of cards this season had only eight races. Arlington seemed to rely heavily on its turf course to fill programs, but the 251 turf races this year were only one more than during 2016. Favorites won at a 37 percent clip, basically the new normal in Thoroughbred racing.

Despite the limited opportunities, trainer Larry Rivelli set an Arlington record for wins during a meet with 79, eclipsing the record 75 races Wayne Catalano won in 2010. Rivelli won his fifth training title, while one of his major clients, Vince Foglia’s Patricia’s Hope LLC, was leading owner for the third year in a row.

Jose Valdivia Jr. had an incredible meet while winning his third straight Arlington riding title. Valdivia won 141 races, 84 more than the next most-winning jockey Santo Sanjur, and Valdivia’s 31.3 percent strike rate was the highest for a leading rider in modern Arlington history.

The Chicago racing circuit resumes Oct. 6, the start of Hawthorne’s fall-winter meet.