05/11/2005 12:00AM

Hope for sunshine as meet opens


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Tuesday night in Chicago was idyllic. The air felt like summer, without summer's swelter. It was an entirely different city 15 hours later. The wind whipped from the north, the temperature struggling to hit 50 degrees Wednesday.

Welcome to spring in Chicago - and welcome to Arlington Park. The gorgeous suburban track opens a 94-day stand Friday, hoping heavily for sunshine and rainbows in a fairly gloomy era. Arlington managed to gain in attendance last year for the third straight season, and handle numbers aren't declining. But purses are down this meet - lower even than those across town at Hawthorne Race Course - and the 2004 season got off to a slow start when cold, wet weather like Wednesday's plagued the early part of the meet.

"With a little good weather, I think you'll see things start off strong this year," said trainer Chris Block, who gears his entire season around Arlington. "Remember last year, how cold and wet it was?"

Horsemen also remember when moving to Arlington meant running for more money. Not now. When the Illinois Racing Board last fall awarded Hawthorne revenue derived from simulcast handle during winter months - when there's no live racing in Chicago - it moved money away from Arlington's purses. Supporters of the switch said Arlington hadn't made good on promises to boost handle during its summer festival of racing. Opponents wondered why the IRB, part of the state bureaucracy, would compromise the position of the state's flagship racetrack. What's done is done, and maidens that ran for $26,000 at Hawthorne are running for $25,000 at Arlington.

"We've got so many good things going here," said Arlington president Cliff Goodrich. "The one thing missing is putting a better product out on the racetrack."

Arlington has asked state government for help, either in the form of ontrack gaming or a revenue stream from existing or additional casinos, but no one seems optimistic that something favorable will emerge from an ongoing legislative session. Goodrich said Arlington would overpay purses by about $1 million this year. Daily purses go up by about $25,000 during the summer festival, but the festival has been trimmed from 36 to 25 days.

Still, Goodrich said Arlington's simulcast signal has benefited from operating under the Churchill Downs Inc. umbrella, and ontrack attendance was up by 6 percent in 2004.

"I walk around this facility and I see people that love to come here," said Goodrich.

The horses are in the process of coming. Frank Gabriel, the director of racing, estimated the equine population at 600 as of Monday, when many stables had yet to ship from Hawthorne. "We hope to have close to 1,500 by Friday," Gabriel said.

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas is gone after a one-year Arlington experiment, as is the stable of Ken McPeek, who is becoming a bloodstock agent. New stables include those of John Ward, who has 21 stalls, and Bertrand de Brevedent and Mike Puhich, both of whom have 15 stalls. Frank Kirby and Wayne Catalano are the early favorites to top the trainer standings. Rene Douglas, the perennial leading rider here, has left, but Shaun Bridgmohan is spending his first summer at Arlington.

The meat of the stakes schedule starts in July, and Arlington Million Day this year is Aug. 13. The opening-day stakes, dubbed the Shecky Greene, is of the $40,000 overnight variety, but the race has brought out some fast horses. Almost certain to be favored is Smoke Smoke Smoke, who beat a good field April 9 in the $125,000 Lost Code, the best performance of his career. Trainer Hugh Robertson also entered Three Hour Nap, who won the Arlington-Washington Futurity here last year, but was seventh in the Lost Code, his 3-year-old debut.

Three Hour Nap had a tough winter, battling foot problems and a lung infection that surfaced again in the Lost Code.

"He's training good, but I don't know if he can beat Smoke," said Robertson.

Raving Rocket, who won the Golden Circle on April 23 at Prairie Meadows, might have the best shot at an upset.

Meet Highlights

July 23American Derby (G2)$250,000
July 30Washington Park Handicap (G2)300,000
Aug. 13Arlington Million (G1)1,000,000
Aug. 13Beverly D. (G1)750,000
Aug. 13Secretariat (G1)400,000