09/29/2009 11:00PM

Average all-sources handle falls 7.4% at Arlington

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Arlington Park narrowly boosted average daily attendance figures during its 2009 meet, which ended Sunday, but in the matter of taking bets, Arlington went the way of the racing industry in general: Down.

Despite racing 98 days compared to 96 in 2008, total handle declined from $411,949,372 to $389,087,878. Average daily all-sources handle fell 7.4 percent, down from $4,291,139 to $3,970,284 this year.

Average daily attendance increased 3 percent, to 8,703, but ontrack handle fell 8.3 percent, from $508,893 to $466,535. Daily ontrack handle on Arlington races was down 20 percent from 2007.

Arlington averaged about 7.85 starters per race, down from 8.23 in 2008.

Junior Alvarado won his first riding title. Perennial meet leaders Wayne Catalano and Frank Calabrese topped the trainer and owner standings, respectively.

Fatal 2009 breakdowns fell into an average range. There were 12 racing and four recorded training fatalities, all on Arlington's synthetic surface. In 2008, there were 15 racing fatalities (four on turf) and seven training fatalities. In 2007, Arlington's first synthetic season, there were 14 racing fatalities (two on turf), and three during training.

"Polytrack has given us average years," said Dr. Joseph Lokanc, state veterinarian at Arlington for three years.

Lokanc noted that since no system exists to track injuries that don't result in an officially recorded euthanasia, breakdowns don't reflect Polytrack problems horsemen experienced this summer. Lokanc said private track veterinarians reported "different types of complaints from what we saw on dirt.

"There are more hind-end problems, and when a joint fractures, it doesn't go partway," he said.

But one private vet, Dr. Ramley Bordelon, said he saw fewer problems in 2009. Complaints about racing surfaces, Bordelon said, occur everywhere.

"In 32 years as vet, I don't think I've gone through an entire meet where there weren't problems or perceived problems with the track," Bordelon said.

Trainer Mike Stidham, one of Bordelon's clients, said the Polytrack seemed less forgiving.

"A little more concussion injury now," Stidham said, citing four bone chips his horses suffered during a two-week period this summer, compared with none in 2007-2008. But Stidham strongly prefers Polytrack to Arlington's old dirt track.

"I don't care if they put a bed of cotton candy out there; you're going to have injuries," he said.

Trainer Chris Block said his injury levels "were about the same" this year, though Block now takes a horse out of training if there is even a hint of soreness.

"There are two things I can't explain," Block said. "The color of the track has changed dramatically, and the surface itself feels denser."

Tony Petrillo, Arlington's vice president of facilities, said recent tests showed the materials in the surface were 95 percent unchanged. But no one has explained why the racing surface has darkened so much. And, while several trainers hoped new Polytrack would be mixed into the track before 2010 to freshen up a compacted surface, Petrillo said Arlington had no plans for that.

Arlington is counting on improved Polytrack maintenance procedures. In June, Arlington purchased a cultivator, a third tool for Polytrack maintenance, but it was not until Aug. 31 that a revised maintenance schedule was implemented, Petrillo said. During the meet's last month, the cultivator was used on the main track just before training, rather than the night before. Arlington also is closely tracking weather conditions and correlating them with maintenance procedures to achieve a more uniform and less compacted surface.