06/11/2001 12:00AM

Housing shortage persists

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - As is typical this time of year, there is a horse crunch in Chicago. In its second year back in business, Arlington Park opens its 2001 meet Wednesday with 2,140 stalls available for its horse population. Those stalls are precious. They must sustain acceptably large fields through Arlington's longer-than-usual 102-day meet and provide sufficient room for trainers who need space to house the means of their livelihood.

There is no major training center near Chicago, and Churchill Downs, Arlington's sister track and the closest sizable racing venue, lies at least six hours south by van. This year, Hawthorne Race Course will not be available to pick up the overflow from Arlington's backstretch.

But despite all the added pressures on the local horse population, Arlington remains optimistic about its ability to assemble good-sized fields. And though there is a long waiting list for stall openings at Arlington, there has been surprisingly little bitterness among area horsemen concerning the stabling situation.

The local horse crunch figured to become more acute this summer because of Hawthorne's decision to close its backstretch two days after the Sunday conclusion of its meet.

Last year, a few hundred horses trained at Hawthorne for part of the summer. But a dispute arose between Arlington, Hawthorne, and the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association over how to allocate the cost of keeping Hawthorne open for summer training. When the Illinois Racing Board awarded 2001 racing dates at a meeting last fall, board member Lorna Propes, the most vocal member of the IRB at that meeting, urged the three parties to come to an accord before this year's Arlington meet.

But an agreement was never forged. Instead, Arlington built three new barns to increase its stabling capacity by 164. Between the added stall space and a free horse shuttle from Churchill to Arlington, the track hopes to maintain access to a sufficient number of race-ready horses, and to satisfy the demands of regional trainers.

Frank Gabriel, Arlington's director of racing, feels the track has been equitable in its distribution of stalls. "Stalls are always a problem," he said. "No matter what you do, someone's always short."

While not all local horsemen were pleased with their stall allocations, Joe Kasperski, president of the ITHA, said he had heard no major complaints about Arlington's stall allocations. And Christine Janks, a prominent Chicago-based trainer, echoed that perspective. "I got squeezed a little bit, but only a little," Janks said. "I expected that. The business side of me says [Arlington] has every right to bring in new outfits this year."

The free shuttle service between Churchill and Arlington, which began last summer and proved at least moderately successful, will van horses back and forth from Louisville to Chicago two or three times a week. The shuttle begins running in the second week of July, right after Churchill's spring-summer meet concludes.

"I think we'll see a little increase in the volume on the shuttle," Gabriel said. "Last year we were getting about six, seven, eight or nine horses a week."