05/04/2011 1:10PM

Arlington Park: 2011 meet opens with new executive in charge, top owner absent

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. – On the main floor of the Arlington Park grandstand there’s a photo showing the rubble of recently burned-down Arlington captioned, “Quit? Hell no.” Arlington chairman Dick Duchossois referenced both photo and slogan last week. There has been no particular disaster like the 1985 fire, but Chicago racing has issues. Purses are stagnant and lag behind those in neighboring states. Average daily handle at the 2010 Arlington meet dropped 27 percent from 2009. Arlington exists under the Churchill Downs Inc. umbrella, but CDI CEO Bob Evans often references Chicago’s problems. Just last week Evans called Arlington the “most exposed” of the CDI tracks. And even when Duchossois harked back to the can-do spirit conveyed in that post-fire photo caption, he added an ominous qualifier.

“We aren’t going to quit. We’re going to keep going,” Duchossois said. “But if we can’t make it, we can’t make it.”

The trajectory of Arlington’s business continues unfolding Friday, when the suburban Chicago track begins an 86-day meet. Changes from last year are afoot. Gone is Arlington president Roy Arnold, replaced by in-house promotion Tony Petrillo, whose title is general manager. Gone, too, is Arlington kingpin Frank Calabrese, the perennial leading owner here who elected to keep his stock in Florida this summer. Calabrese had 175 starters at the 2010 meet, and day-to-day racing will look much different in his absence.

“The first year [without Calabrese] might be shaky, but people are going to be more apt to bring horses up here to run,” said second-year racing secretary Chris Polzin. “A lot of people didn’t like running against him.”

Polzin said he will keep his 2011 condition books about the same as last year’s, but neither he nor anyone else knows exactly what to expect from the current horse population. The 2011 Arlington backstretch houses 14 stables that weren’t here at all in 2010, and hard-core Chicago barns – Manny Perez and Roger Brueggemann – have been allocated more stalls than ever. Among the new outfits are strings from Mike Maker, Tim Ice, and Gennadi Dorochenko. The Englishman Gerard Butler has set up shop with 10 stalls to house European runners throughout the season. Arlington regular Mike Stidham still has a large string here, but may shift some of his summer focus to Delaware Park. Trainer Tom Proctor, an Arlington staple, has no stall allotment this year.

The jockey race may prove interesting. Mike Baze, the 2010 leading rider, won’t return this summer, but Junior Alvarado, second in the 2010 standings and the meet leader in 2009, is back. James Graham and Jesus Castanon also should have strong business.

Petrillo, the new general manager, said Arlington intends to hold firm 2010 overnight purse levels, which were paid at a daily average rate of $175,000. A new policy, however, will lop 15 percent from the purse of any race for which fewer than seven horses come to the paddock from the stables. Money not paid out in such instances will be returned to the purse account, but the new rule has been ill received by many horsemen.

“The alternative was to start at $150,000 [per day],” Polzin said.

Arlington will race four-day weeks except around three holidays, when five-day weeks will hold. In May and June, Arlington races mainly Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, but the schedule shifts to Thursday-Sunday from July through September.

“We looked at who’s out there in the market and who do we compete against,” Petrillo said of the altered schedule. One factor in the 2010 handle decline was vastly increased betting on Monmouth Park, and Petrillo said Arlington hopes to dodge Monmouth this season.

Arlington conducted far more turf races in 2010 than in any previous meet, a trend that should continue, Petrillo said.

“By our standards we pushed the envelope, but I think we’ve proven the turf can stand up,” he said.

Arlington bettors will find tweaks to the wagering menu. The pick four and pick five now are offered at a 50-cent minimum. Takeout on the pick five and the High 5 has been reduced to 15 percent. Quinellas also are back as a betting option.

Friday’s opening 10-race card drew 97 entrants, well above the 8.08 starters per race Arlington averaged in 2010. While the highest-class fare is an entry-level Illinois-bred allowance, several of the races look substantive and bettable, and many of the new outfits are already in action. Add in a few recent dry days and the dose of hope attached to every meet opening, and the gloom doesn’t feel quite so enveloping.

“We’ve spent all winter changing, and we know what our target is,” said Duchossois.

“We’re just going to try one innovation after the other till we find the right answers.”