04/29/2010 12:00AM

Arlington meet opens with a few tweaks


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - A cloud hung over the 2009 race meet at Arlington Park, with last summer marked by tragedy and uncertainty, but the suburban Chicago racetrack hopes the only darkness lingering into 2010 is the Polytrack laid down over the 1 1/8-mile racing oval.

Year 4 of Arlington's synthetic-racing-surface era commences Thursday, the first of 91 days of live racing during a marathon meet that extends all the way through Sept. 26. Arlington remixed its Polytrack during the offseason - "rotating the tires," as track president Roy Arnold termed the process - causing the surface to appear much darker than in 2009. The darkness last season was of a far sadder sort, with jockeys Rene Douglas and Mike Straight suffering terrible injuries in a pair of disturbing spills.

Arnold said last week that Arlington firmly believes its main track is safe for both horses and riders. The major maintenance performed on the surface over the course of several weeks earlier this spring was routine.

"Just like with a dirt track, we knew that the layer on the bottom was relatively untouched," Arnold said. "What we did was we picked up the inside layer and moved it onto the outside, and we took the bottom of the track up to the top, and mixed it all up. That's why the color has changed."

The surface seemed somewhat deep when the track opened for training in mid-April, according to horsemen who arrived early, but the speed of morning workouts has quickened in recent days. Arlington has worked to improve its Polytrack maintenance practices, correlating weather data with track conditions and last year purchasing a machine called a cultivator that was widely credited with helping the surface.

"We're always learning, and we learned great lessons last year," Arnold said. "We're learning less can be more. For instance, training sessions this year, we're not doing a break."

Some changes have come to the 2010 Arlington stakes schedule, most notably placement of the Arlington Million, which was bumped back a couple weeks to Aug. 21 this season. The Million, as usual, shares a program with two other turf Grade 1's, the Beverly D. and the Secretariat. The stakes schedule is light during June, with just one open stakes scheduled.

Arlington has abandoned five-day racing weeks in 2010 and will race Thursday to Sunday throughout the season. In 2009, the racing week was expanded to five days in July and August.

Arlington's overnight purses aren't top-shelf and are projected to average around $205,000 per day (not including stakes), but the purse account here is in better shape than at other Illinois tracks. Account-wagering companies were operating in Illinois long before the practice actually became legal under state law earlier this year. Arlington escrowed fees derived from bets placed through those platforms and found itself with $2.1 million in purse money when the state legislature legalized account wagering.

"We actually started the year with a positive balance in the purse account," Arnold said.

It's possible Arlington could get a bigger purse boost this summer: Millions of dollars generated by a casino impact-fee law and intended for Illinois racing remain tangled in legal challenges from the four casinos affected by the state law. Should the money come in, Arlington conservatively estimates that purses could increase by $100,000 per day.

"Hopefully, we get that extra money," new racing secretary Chris Polzin said. "I want the people who want to be here to run to be rewarded with it."

Polzin refers to the fact that Arlington has in the past kept some stall space open for outfits looking to ship horses in after the Churchill Downs meet concludes in July. Polzin, a longtime Chicago racing official, said that practice has ended.

"If I can allot every single stall on the backside right now, I am," Polzin said. "You're supposed to produce your numbers right off the bat, and you can't do that by leaving 200 stalls empty."

Thursday's nine-race opening-day card, assembled Sunday, drew 70 entries. Friday's 10-race program, slow to fill Monday, got just 75 horses. No surprise that entries would be sluggish: There have been only 159 published workouts since April 15.

Last year's leading trainer, Wayne Catalano, is back for another Arlington summer and could be in even better shape than he was in 2009. Junior Alvarado edged James Graham in the jockey standings last year, and both are back for another season. Jesus Castanon and newcomer Mike Baze also might challenge for leading rider.

In Thursday's featured eighth race, a second-level Polytrack route allowance, Catalano has named Baze to ride Paisano Creek. Paisano Creek looks competitive, but the pick is Rimini Rebel, with Castanon riding for trainer Donnie Von Hemel.