12/07/2006 12:00AM

Arlington installing synthetic surface by spring

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CHICAGO - Arlington Park announced Thursday that it is joining the synthetic-racing-surface generation, and will become the first racetrack owned by Churchill Downs Inc. to discard its traditional dirt track and install a synthetic surface.

Synthetic tracks already are being used at Turfway Park - the first synthetic racing surface in North America - Keeneland, Woodbine, and Hollywood. Arlington has not yet chosen which surface it will employ, and said a final round of visits and consultation in the next seven to 10 days would produce a final decision.

The track's president, Roy Arnold, said he had been to Hollywood Park to inspect the Cushion Track surface there, and to Keeneland, which began using Polytrack this fall. Arlington also is considering the Tapeta Footings surface designed by trainer Michael Dickinson.

"We aren't going to be left behind," Arlington's chairman, Richard Duchossois, said in remarks opening a press conference in downtown Chicago. "We're a leader."

Arlington already has begun the task of pulling up its existing main track, including the surface's base, which must be replaced before the synthetic surface is laid down. Arlington said the new surface will be ready by April 1, about a month before its 2007 meet begins May 4.

The track said that the project's cost will be, at maximum, $10 million, and could be less depending on the particular surface selected. The project will be funded by Arlington and Churchill Downs Inc., Arnold said, quashing speculation that Arlington might ask the state legislature for financial aid. Financing for the project had to be approved by Churchill's board of directors. The Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association already has endorsed the surface switch.

Synthetic surfaces have been widely hailed for promoting soundness in horses. That, in turn, increases field size and, theoretically, the betting handle on a given track's races. But the move to a synthetic track also comes at an opportune moment for Arlington, which came under fire during its 2006 meet because of a rash of catastrophic breakdowns.

Arnold, while acknowledging that the breakdowns led Arlington seriously to consider a synthetic surface, maintained that Arlington's dirt track had been safe this past year. Still, he and the track's racing secretary, Kevin Greeley, were peppered with questions Thursday by local television and print media still focused on the summer's spate of catastrophic injuries.

The 2006 breakdown rate wound up falling within historically established levels, and the track surface was inspected several times with no significant problems discovered. Nevertheless, Arlington was dealt a blow in the Chicago market, and ontrack attendance declined this year, reversing a recent trend at the suburban Chicago track.

It remains to be seen if other tracks owned by Churchill Downs Inc. will follow Arlington's changeover.

"The decision to go first at Arlington is a product of the team we have in place and the climate," Arnold said. "We think if we can master it here, we can export that knowledge through the CDI system of tracks. How long will that take? I couldn't tell you."

Turfway Park has experienced problems with the maintenance of its Polytrack, as has Woodbine. The Cushion Track at Hollywood Park also recently ran into track-maintenance trouble, and Arnold acknowledged the Arlington transition might not be seamless.

"We're not starting from scratch, but there will be some learning involved," he said. "The real issues are maintenance issues."