11/27/2006 12:00AM

Arlington may go synthetic

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CHICAGO - Arlington Park is considering the replacement of its dirt track with a synthetic racing surface before the beginning of its 2007 racing season on May 4, according to sources with direct knowledge of the situation, but the change would first have to be approved by Arlington's parent company, Churchill Downs Incorporated.

If a synthetic surface were to be installed, Arlington would become the first CDI track to have one. Other North American tracks that already have implemented synthetic surfaces are Woodbine, Turfway, Keeneland, and Hollywood. Churchill Downs Inc., the second-biggest racetrack company in the country, also owns Churchill Downs, Calder Race Course, Fair Grounds, and Hoosier Park.

While Arlington chairman Richard Duchossois declined to comment for this article, the sources, who asked not to be named because the process is still in the early stages, confirmed that the track is seriously considering switching to a synthetic surface. The project might cost between $7 million and $10 million, and CDI's board of directors would have to okay such a financial outlay. Duchossois, however, is the largest shareholder in CDI, and has a prominent presence on its board.

A synthetic surface might quell a firestorm over Arlington's dirt track that persisted through its 2006 meet. The track went through a highly publicized rash of catastrophic breakdowns last summer, attracting great attention from local media outlets. There were 15 fatal in-race breakdowns during the first seven weeks of the Arlington meet, but the rate slowed significantly thereafter, with 21 horses euthanized due to racing injuries by season's end. That total was nine greater than in 2005, but three fewer than 2004.

Arlington brought in three outside consultants to inspect the track during the summer, and all three proclaimed it safe. Nevertheless, the surface continued to be scrutinized, and some owners went so far as to move their horses to other venues. Arlington wound up suffering declines in handle, attendance and field size during 2006. Synthetic surfaces are thought to be easier on horses, and may help promote soundness and therefore eventually increase field size.

Arlington's main track won't open for training again until late spring, and an expedited process would be required if a synthetic surface were to be installed. Joe Kasperski, head of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said he favored such a move.

"I believe it's in Arlington's and racing's best interest that they seriously consider putting in one of the synthetic tracks," Kasperski said Monday.