09/23/2008 12:00AM

Handle drops, mostly at the track


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Business at the 2008 Arlington Park meet, which wrapped up Sunday, was down, but not a debacle.

Handle and attendance both fell from 2007 figures, and ontrack handle on Arlington races declined enough to raise eyebrows, but the numbers pretty much lined up with the difficult economic climate both in racing and the country.

The 96-day meet this year was the second Arlington season on Polytrack, and across the board, figures remained well above the troubling totals from 2006, the final year of Arlington dirt racing, and a season marred by a well-publicized spike in fatal breakdowns.

Still, average daily attendance declined this year by about 4 percent, from 8,161 to 7,808. Average daily ontrack handle fell more steeply, dropping some 12 percent from last year's $580,861 to $508,893. Illinois intertrack wagering and handle at offtrack betting parlors on Arlington races declined by only 5 percent, however, leading one to surmise that Arlington may have lost some ontrack customers to betting shops.

Arlington's best handle figure came from out-of-state wagering, which declined only about 2 percent, from $3,495,589 to $3,429,585. Put all the handle figures together, and Arlington was down 3.5 percent from 2007, with the average daily total handle at $4,291,139 this year, down from $4,447,908 in 2007.

The average number of starters per race also dropped, from 8.32 in 2007 to 8.23, a figure still well ahead of the 7.46 starters per race in 2006. The starter figure is encouraging because of an especially wet spring and summer. Polytrack was advertised as a means to reducing scratches and lost training and racing time, and it has appeared to fill that function.

Racing and training fatalities were up this year, from 17 in 2007 to 21 this year, according to the Illinois Racing Board. There were 15 racing fatalities in 2008 (11 on Polytrack, four on turf), and six training fatalities (five on the main track, one on the dirt training track). Last year, there were 12 main-track racing fatalities, two turf racing fatalities, and three main-track training deaths. In 2006, the year with the breakdown spike, there were 22 racing fatalities on dirt, but in 2005, there were just eight racing fatalities on the dirt main track.

"Polytrack's still a learning experience, both for horsemen and for the racetrack," said trainer Frank Kirby, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

As usual, Frank Calabrese won the owner's title (69 wins), his trainer Wayne Catalano won the training title (62 wins), and Rene Douglas was the leading rider (136 wins). Douglas won his sixth Arlington title, Catalano his seventh.