09/28/2003 11:00PM

Average handle up slightly

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CHICAGO - Arlington Park had hoped hosting the Breeders' Cup in 2002 would bring a burst of momentum to its 2003 meet, but business this year was even, though the track did post a gain in attendance and made minor forward progress in average daily handle.

Arlington's 104-day meet concluded Saturday, when a sparse crowd witnessed a pair of stakes races with Breeders' Cup implications for 2-year-olds. Ontrack crowds, however, were the bright spot in the meet, as attendance rose 12.7 percent over last season, not including Breeders' Cup Day.

But more ontrack fans bet less than fewer fans bet in 2002: average daily ontrack wagering decreased 3.6 percent (again, excluding the Breeders' Cup), from $580,545 last year to $559,454 this season.

"If you look at attendance and handle, I thought we did a great job at getting new people to come out to the track, but we really need to do a better job of guiding them to wagering," Arlington president Cliff Goodrich said.

Bettors around the country, however, boosted Arlington's average daily handle this year. Even without the Breeders' Cup, handle from all sources this season was $4,084,335 per day compared to $4,007,779 last year.

To increase business, Goodrich believes Arlington must focus on field size, which dropped from 8.4 horses per race last year to 8.2 in 2003. "We need to have more horses running around the track," he said.

But for now, Arlington is locked into a schedule that conflicts with Churchill Downs, a sister track under the CDI Inc. banner. Many Kentucky horsemen that would run regularly at Arlington are committed to racing at Churchill until that meet ends in July.

"You can only do so many things," Goodrich said. "I think it's difficult with Churchill, but it's not all negative. Within the scheme of things, you play the hand you're dealt."

Racing at Arlington - and in all of Illinois - remains in flux. Gov. Rod Blagojevich rebuffed a legislative proposal for slot machines this spring, though the tracks hope to revisit the proposal during a legislative session this fall. State racetracks also stand to derive a financial windfall from profits generated by a 10th riverboat casino in Illinois, but the future of a 10th riverboat license is deeply entangled in legal and regulatory issues.

And the winners are . . .

There were runaway winners in the category of leading owner, trainer, and jockey this summer. Frank Calabrese topped the owner standings with 65 wins, 50 more than his nearest rival. Calabrese's main trainer, Wayne Catalano, won another training title by amassing 59 wins. And Rene Douglas won his third straight riding title. His 132 winners were 43 more than runner-up Eddie Razo.