05/03/2017 9:30AM

Arlington opens meet still fighting the good fight

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Four-Footed Fotos
Arlington International will race for 71 days beginning on Friday.

Arlington International Racecourse hosts the Arlington Million on Aug. 12. The world’s first million-dollar horse race still stands tall, but the once-proud racetrack from which it sprang begins a 71-day meet on Friday scuffling along, trying to hang on.

Arlington officials deny any knowledge of it, but there long has been persistent murmurs that Arlington’s parent company, Churchill Downs Inc., would cease operations at Arlington were the track’s 95-year-old chairman, Richard Duchossois, not still in the picture.

Asked how long Arlington could maintain the status quo, general manager Tony Petrillo demurred: “I don’t know that racing is viable for anyone right now,” he said.

Arlington had to drop purses and cut stakes during its 2016 meet and wound up paying an average of about $130,000 per day in overnight purses. Illinois remains one of the last racing jurisdictions in North America funding purses strictly through betting handle, and an annual attempt to induce the state legislature to pass a gambling-expansion bill that would bring slot machines to tracks is, like in past years, going nowhere fast.

Arlington still is trying things, at least in the ways it knows how. The track has made several improvements in the hospitality area and continues to market effectively. The Starting Gate Theater has been remodeled and turned into the track’s television studio center, from which will emanate an 11 a.m. Central broadcast on Comcast SportsNet Chicago on many Saturdays during the season. There’s a new “Miller Lite Zone” at the finish line, and the International Skyline Lounge has been remodeled.

“We’re trying some new stuff,” said Petrillo.

Massive crowds still come out on the right weekend days and with the right inducements, but average daily all-sources handle last season was a less-than-robust $1.79 million.

After bottoming out at 7.18 starters per race in 2015, Arlington drew an average of 7.49 starters during 2016, though only 7.07 on Polytrack, and Arlington might lean more heavily than ever this year on its world-class grass course.

Arlington is setting purses at levels it hopes can be sustained without a cut this summer. Maiden special weight races offer a $28,000 pot compared with $32,000 at the beginning of the 2016 season. The Illinois Racing Board has pledged $500,000 to purses at Chicago tracks – money it says it doesn’t need for operational expenses mainly because of reduced harness-racing dates – but the legislature has not green-lighted the allocation of those funds.

Petrillo said Arlington will card eight to 11 races per program – eight on the slowest days of the season, 11 on peak days during midsummer. Two of the first three weeks of the season have just two racing days. Arlington races Fridays through Sundays in June and September and adds Thursdays in July and August. In addition to the annual Independence Day-fireworks card (July 3 this year), Arlington will host twilight programs beginning at 4:15 p.m. on June 3 and July 22.

Many of the core stables on the Arlington backstretch over the last decade have left for greener pastures. Mike Stidham, who had roughly 100 horses in the stables last summer, is mainly at Fair Hill and Delaware this year and has only a small Arlington string. Perennial leading trainer Larry Rivelli has 60-some head in the barns and figures to be kingpin again. Leading rider Jose Valdivia is back, as are the five other riders in last year’s top six.

Despite the absence of the larger outfits, Arlington officials say the equine population could increase this season.

“We actually have more horses projected to be on the grounds this year than last year,” said Petrillo. “We had 1,325 last year, and we’re hoping for 1,450.”

Sixty-eight horses – not all of them stabled at Arlington – were entered on Friday’s nine-race card, which, like all Friday programs until Sept. 8, has a first post of 3:15 p.m. Standard first post is 1:25.

The nominal opening-day feature is race 3, a first-level allowance race also open to $75,000 claimers for 3-year-olds at six furlongs on Polytrack. Mike Maker (who has Hey Mike) and Tom Amoss (Life Imitates Art) both sent starters from Kentucky. Were this to happen regularly and more widely, things wouldn’t look so gray at Arlington after all.