05/01/2013 3:21PM

Arlington Park meet begins with two-year pact in place


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. – There were 93 horses entered Tuesday for Friday’s 10-race card that starts Arlington’s 89-day 2013 racing season. And that alone is reason for at least modest celebration.

Last week, Arlington and the local horsemen’s group, the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, stopped lobbing verbal grenades at one another long enough to sign a two-year contract governing the terms under which the 2013 and 2014 Arlington race meetings will be conducted. A year ago, the arguing spilled onto opening weekend, and because of a de facto entry boycott, only 49 horses raced on the opening card, Kentucky Oaks Day, and only 48 on the meet’s second day, Kentucky Derby Day.

“That’s absolutely a big weight taken off our shoulders,” said Arlington general manager Tony Petrillo. “Getting this two-year deal cut really gives us a lot of optimism going into the start of this meet.

Some room for optimism exists. Average daily betting on Arlington races increased by about 6 percent during the 2012 meet. Overnight purses are expected to be paid at an average of about $220,000 per day. Maiden special weight races are worth $38,000. Chris Polzin, the Arlington racing secretary, estimated the horse population at Arlington as of Wednesday at about 1,500, with two big local stables yet to arrive, a stronger number than in recent opening weeks. A high percentage of those horses should be ready to run, but not burned out by a heavy spring workload. The Hawthorne meet that ended Sunday drew only about seven horses per race, and because of weather, Hawthorne was able to card only two turf races.

“If you look at some of the stats we’re seeing, the number of starts and horses that started, we feel that there are a lot of horses here that have not run this year,” said Petrillo.

The human element on the backside has undergone some changes since 2012. Gone are trainer Donnie Von Hemel, Tim Ice, and for the most part, Joel Berndt, but new and expanded outfits should make up for their absence. Mark Casse has 12 horses at Arlington and is expected to send more when the Churchill Downs meet ends this summer. Tom Proctor has a larger presence this season, with 46 stalls allotted, while Roger Brueggemann, who stabled privately last summer at Hawthorne, has 60 Arlington stalls this year.

Trainer Pavel Vashchenko, training exclusively for Russian owner Vladimir Kazakov, has 30 stalls. Wayne Catalano, easily the leading trainer in 2012, has his usual full complement of stalls here, but Catalano’s former client, owner Frank Calabrese, will not stable at Arlington this summer, despite persistent rumors to the contrary. Trainer Larry Rivelli typically sends live runners early in the Arlington meet, and has horses entered in eight of 10 races Friday. Chris Block’s stable seems loaded with talented runners this year.

There are notable changes to the jockey colony as well. The leading jockey from 2012, Francisco Torres, will not be riding at Arlington, at least at the meet’s start. Big-name newcomers Corey Nakatani and Kent Desormeaux should attract plenty of business, and both are represented by proven Arlington agents. And it will be interesting to see how the seven-pound apprentice rider Emmanual Esquivel, who finished third in the Hawthorne standings during his first meet, transitions to Arlington.

Nothing more than routine offseason maintenance was done to the turf course or the Polytrack main track. The Polytrack, which played relatively fair in 2012, was last turned over before the 2011 meet. The turf should be in great shape after a wet spring and recent warm weather, but Polzin warned that any significant late-week rain could move the opening weekend grass races to the main track.

Arlington offers four wagers with a low 15-percent takeout rate this season. The 50-cent pick five and the $1 Jackpot High 5 were offered at the reduced rate last season, while the $1  pick six, covering the last six races on a card, and a new 10-cent Jackpot Pick 9, also have a 15-percent takeout.

Arlington also has changed the setup of 1 1/16-mile Polytrack races, which now will end at the regular finish line rather than the sixteenth pole, and start quite close to the clubhouse turn.

Racing weeks here are four days, with Thursday’s replacing Wednesdays beginning in July, and Friday to Sunday racing offered season-long.

Arlington Million Day in 2013 is set for Aug. 17. In addition to the Grade  1 Arlington Million at 1 1/4 miles on grass, the day’s card includes the Grade 1, $750,000 Beverly D. for fillies and mares, the $100,000 American St. Leger for 3-year-olds and up, and the Grade  1, $500,000 Secretariat Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, all on the turf.