04/28/2009 11:00PM

Innovations key to luring fans to 2009 meeting


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - It's the time of year to welcome back an anachronism - a racetrack that seems truly to believe that it might still increase the number of real, live human beings in attendance.

Yes, Arlington Park is part of long-tentacled corporate power Churchill Downs Inc. Of course, the track wants to maximize out-of-state distribution of its simulcast signal. Sure, Arlington makes money from bettors gazing at monitors beaming in the simulcast signal from out-of-state tracks. But while Arlington on some level must surely acknowledge the realities of the industry's current state, it retains a stubborn focus on trying to get local fans out to see horses in the flesh.

"I don't think a track has to be one thing or the other," said Arlington president Roy Arnold. "I think it's a mistake for people to look at it as a binary thing. I think you can do both."

The effort begins anew Friday, when Arlington launches a 98-day meet. The installation of Polytrack before the 2007 season revitalized Arlington's fortunes after a troubled 2006 meet. But though attendance rebounded from 2006 to 2007, it fell 4 percent again last year. Now, Arnold and others have brewed all sorts of little strategies to get more people to the track. Arlington launched a second website (www.arlingtonparklive.com), one with a social focus, to go along with its regular racing site.

Arlington, Arnold said, expects to increase online admission and seating sales by 100 percent from last year. When people buy online, Arlington has a means for following up on their visit, finding out who came to the track and why, and to encourage their return. Electronic surveys of existing customers - like those who inhabit high-end boxes - have led to attempts at improvement. Twittering, blogging, social-networking - such maneuvers might not reshape the sport, but Arnold thinks that over the long term, they just might help.

"If there are things we can try, why not try them?" Arnold said.

Arlington handle has trended downward for several seasons, and the economic climate of the day suggests a reversal is unlikely. Still, Arnold said Arlington intends to keep 2009 purses on par with 2008, when overnight races averaged around $271,000 per day.

"We're starting off conservative, but our current pricing in our first condition book is consistent with last year," Arnold said. "I don't expect to have to get into a purse reduction."

Purses actually could go up - perhaps by as much as $60,000 per day, Arnold said - if millions of dollars taken from revenues at four northern Illinois casinos and intended for the state's racing industry get released from a legal holding pattern. Money from the so-called casino impact fee would be released if the United States Supreme Court declines to take up an appeal filed by the affected casinos. If the court decides to hear the appeal, the money - held up since legislation passed in 2006 - will remain in escrow. A decision by the court is expected soon.

The makeup of the equine population has changed since last year. Gone is trainer Todd Pletcher, whose Chicago string lent a big-name presence to this meet the last two years. Advice, a Kentucky Derby starter, began his career here last summer for Pletcher.

Also gone entirely or planning to scale back at Arlington are trainers Bill Mott and Ronny Werner. Donnie Von Hemel, however, will base here for the first time in 12 years, and has an entire barn's worth of stalls.

Racing secretary Kevin Greely said just 800 horses were on the grounds Sunday, but more have been coming every day. Greely said the racing program includes a few more overnight stakes this year, and Arlington bettors can expect to see a greater number of grass races, weather permitting.

"We have a grass track that's 132 feet wide with five lanes," Greely said. "We should use it."

The turf course will see its most important action on Aug. 8, Arlington Million Day. Million Preview Day, with three more, graded stakes, is July 11.

As for the main track, the Polytrack - one of the more successful synthetic tracks in North America - grew compacted and too tight toward the end of last meet. Many horsemen migrated to the dirt training track for daily exercise. Trackman Javier Barajas, who shepherded Arlington through the dirt-to-synthetic transition, has taken a job in Dubai, but returned to Chicago to help ready the surface for the upcoming season.

"We didn't go back over it and roll it with the tires like before," Barajas said Monday "We loosened it up, and I think if we stay on top of it, things will be good. Before, with the dirt track, the problem was moisture. With this track, the problem is temperature. That's what you have to deal with."

A search is ongoing for Barajas's replacement, with his two foreman guiding track maintenance for the moment.

"You don't want to put just anyone in there," Greely said. "It has to be someone who knows turf, dirt, and Polytrack."

The trackman job scarcely is known to the new fans Arlington would like to bring to the races. Jockey Rene Douglas, even the most casual bettors know well. Douglas will try for a seventh Arlington riding crown this season, and in the opening-day feature, the $50,000 Timeless Native over a mile on Polytrack, Douglas could be on a live horse at a decent price, Lovango. Lovango was 12th last out at Oaklawn Park in his comeback from a winter break, but he has run big before on Arlington Polytrack. Graded stakes winner Recpaturetheglory, whose glory has come on dirt and not synthetic racing surfaces, is also entered.