09/12/2006 11:00PM

Declines across the board


CHICAGO - Rain soaked the last days of Arlington Park's 2006 season. Some would contend a cloud hung over the track for most of a 95-day meet that concluded Tuesday. Attendance fell, handle declined markedly, and Arlington was plagued by negative publicity over a rash of catastrophic breakdowns.

Recent attendance increases in the face of national declines had been an Arlington bright spot, but in the track's first season with Col. Roy Arnold as president, and first since longtime executive Frank Gabriel departed for Dubai, Arlington attendance fell 9.3 percent from a daily average of 7,607 in 2005 to 6,903. Unusually wet weather could not have helped.

But betting also suffered significant declines. Total average daily handle was $3,906,412, down 9.4 percent or $406,820 from last year's daily average of $4,313,232. Ontrack handle dropped more steeply, the daily average declining by 15.4 percent from $575,211 in 2005 to $486,484 this year.

Field size supposedly drives handle, and despite first-year racing secretary Kevin Greely's willingness to keep turf races on a wet course (226 turf races compared with 217 last year), average field size fell to 7.44 from 8.25 starters per race in 2004 and 8.0 last year.

The bleakest aspect of Arlington's 2006 season was a well-publicized rash of fatal breakdowns. Hints of a problem emerged in early June and reached a boiling point in July. Three times - twice at the behest of the Illinois Racing Board, once of Arlington's own accord - the racing surface was inspected by outside consultants. No problems were found, though pine bark shavings were added to the surface, and Arlington will survey the surface's base after the stable area closes.

In all, 21 horses injured in races had to be euthanized, and after a particularly grim spell in late June, local media ran with the story. Arlington received far more coverage than in recent years - almost all of it focused on breakdowns. But while the 21 racing fatalities were far more than occurred last season, when there were only 12, the 2006 total actually was less than the 24 catastrophic racing breakdowns recorded in 2004. And, since early July, Arlington's breakdown rate has stayed within historical norms.

Historical norms also held in the category of leading owner, with Frank Calabrese on top for the seventh year in a row, and leading trainer, with Wayne Catalano capturing his fifth title in seven years. Chris Emigh, kingpin at Hawthorne Race Course, earned his first Arlington jockey crown, over Francisco Torres.