09/14/2002 12:00AM

Arlington's big Cup transformation

Banks of seats are being added at Arlington Park to make room for the 35,000 extra fans expected on Breeders? Cup Day, Oct. 26. The extra seats will make up 75 percent of the track?s seating on Cup day.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Breeders' Cup officials got a private helicopter tour from Dick Duchossois and made a hands-on inspection Thursday of Arlington Park's Breeders' Cup makeover. What they saw was a project in full swing and on schedule, with sets of stadium seats and the skeletons of vast tents springing up around the perimeter of Arlington's 1 1/8-mile main track.

Arlington's transition to a Breeders' Cup venue, the most radical in the history of the Breeders' Cup, has gone smoothly so far and is expected to be completed - except for detailing - a week before the Oct. 26 Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships. The construction of about 35,000 temporary seats with accompanying tents to service their occupants began Aug. 18. The work has proceeded steadily, with most of the work being done at night to avoid frightening horses or interfering with daily racing.

Arlington is the third Breeders' Cup host track to require the installation of temporary seats. Alterations also were made at Gulfstream Park, three times host of the event, and Woodbine, the 1996 host. But the temporary seating project underway here is much more extensive, involving about 75 percent of the Breeders' Cup day seats.

"We're about 100 percent ahead of Woodbine," said Breeders' Cup president D.G. Van Clief. "They did a fabulous job there, but the kind of sophistication now is so far ahead of six years ago. We're very satisfied with the schedule we're on and with the way things look."

The project is being undertaken by the Colonnade Group, an Alabama firm specializing in temporary seating that services PGA events and Southeastern Conference tournaments. Loads of seats and steel supports have been arriving here for the last three weeks, and most of the seating structures are at least partially complete.

The temporary seats are clustered around the first part of the clubhouse turn - at the track's one-mile marker - the top of the stretch, and at the quarter-mile pole. The clubhouse turn and quarter pole structures rise about 50 feet above track level, with the lowest rows of seating situated right on the track's outside rail.

Sightlines are good on both turns, especially at the quarter pole, where fans will have a decent view of the backstretch and homestretch while sitting right above horses cranking up for a final push to the wire. Large video monitors placed in the infield will augment the view from all seats, and tents with concessions and betting windows will service each section of seating.

As well as things are going, the great unknown in the venture remains weather. The seating sections are completely exposed to the elements, and while the tents are designed to accommodate as many fans that have tickets in a particular section, this year's Breeders' Cup would be an entirely different event on a bitter, drizzly day.

"Unfortunately, we can't do much about that," Van Clief said. "Nonetheless, we're praying for dry weather."

Van Clief said about 2,000 to 3,000 tickets remain unsold, with close to 40,000 seats already purchased. "I still think we will sell the event out," he said. If not, tickets will be available on a walk-up basis on race day. Tickets remain in most areas, especially at the quarter pole, though seats in Arlington's main grandstand have never been offered to the public.

Meanwhile, racing goes on here as usual, though some horses at first balked during training when they saw changes in their normal panorama.

Besides the rising stands, the track has been made barren by the removal of dozens of trees to make room for seats and tents. Arlington plans to replace all the trees before next year.