07/05/2006 12:00AM

Mainstream media runs with track story

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Arlington Park commits vast energies and resources trying to dent the Chicago media market, but coverage has fallen drastically. Finally, the track has gotten some attention, but for all the wrong reasons.

Last Saturday, Arlington made the front page of the Chicago Tribune - not sports, but news. The Tribune, which has reduced daily Arlington coverage to a few specks on its daily page of sports statistics, and employs a computer program to offer daily selections, ran a story with the headline, "What's Injuring Arlington Racehorses?" reporting on the rash of fatal breakdowns at this meet. The Daily Herald, a paper that serves Chicago's northwest suburbs, followed suit Sunday, and the Tribune came back with two more prominently played stories Monday and Tuesday. By Tuesday, nearly all the local television stations had sent crews to the racetrack, a fever pitch of coverage following close on the high-profile injury to Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro.

"I've done five or six [television] interviews and the same number of radio," said Col. Roy Arnold, Arlington's first-year president.

Arnold, barely getting his feet wet in the racing world after decades in the Marine Corps, faces the task of explaining to journalists who know little about racing the complex chain of events that most believe is responsible for the high breakdown rate.

"I look at it as an opportunity for developing trust with the people of Chicago and Illinois," Arnold said.

So far, the media frenzy has not unearthed satisfying answers to the puzzling breakdown rate, and neither has Arlington. A planned inspection of the track surface's base last Monday, when noted trackman Joe King was at Arlington as a consultant, had to be pushed back to Wednesday - after King had left - because of rain. King reported nothing unusual in his analysis of the surface, and neither did Arlington's trackman, Javier Barajas, when a section of the track's top layer was peeled back.

However, there were two more breakdowns when racing resumed; Bernel Trail finished a race Friday, but suffered a fracture and later was euthanized, and on Saturday, I Love Lisa broke down just before the finish line, and also was put down. There were no breakdowns Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday.

Official lists show that 15 horses have suffered fatal breakdowns during races so far this meet, but one of those horses fell over an already stricken horse. Most of the breakdowns have occurred between the three-eighths pole and the finish, but a couple horses - such as Bernel Trail - were found to have broken bones after their race. Boom City, one of two horses that broke down in the same race June 22, was pulled up in the middle of the backstretch. Ten of the horses were year-in, year-out regulars on the Chicago circuit. One casualty was a first-time starter, another a lightly raced maiden. All passed inspection by veterinarians stationed in the Arlington paddock and at the starting gate.

While the number of breakdowns after less than half this season already has surpassed last year's total at Arlington, first-year racing secretary Kevin Greely said there were 24 breakdowns during the 2004 meet, and pointed out that at times, California tracks have had breakdowns rates at similarly high or higher levels than Arlington's.

"Is it acceptable? No, one's not acceptable; you wouldn't want any single horse to break down," Greely said. "Do we think there's a problem with the racetrack itself? No."

"I don't think it's only the racetrack," said trainer Hugh Robertson, who lost a good young filly named Grandelena to a fatal breakdown during training here May 6. "I think it's a lot of different factors, 100 different things."

Like most, Robertson has theories about what might be dangerous about the track, but unlike many, he's unwilling to merely speculate.

When racing resumes Friday, Arlington will have mixed ground pine bark into the track surface, a measure the track said it had planned before the breakdowns became a consuming issue. The pine bark is intended to provide extra cushion, especially during hot weather. Arnold said the track had found no reason to take more serious measures, such as reconstituting the entire surface.

"If we found something wrong, yes, we'd consider that," Arnold said. "But I've had some people come up to me and say, 'Don't do anything to screw the track up.' "

Four Classic runners possible for derby

Kingship, who won Saturday's Arlington Classic in a head bob, is likely to contest the July 22 American Derby here, but Proudinsky, the horse Kingship narrowly beat, may go next in the July 15 Virginia Derby. The third-, fourth-, and fifth-place finishers Saturday - Arbuckle Bandit, Creative Force, and Icy Ridge, respectively - also are possible runners in the American Derby.

Kingship, who shipped to Arlington after winning a maiden race at Churchill Downs, will remain with trainer Ronny Werner's string here to prepare for the American Derby, Werner said. While there's still a chance of a rematch with Proudinsky, Joe Miller, who works for owner Gary Tanaka's racing manager, said Proudinsky is more likely to run in Virginia.

"If the horse is ready in two weeks, we'll probably go there," Miller said.

Come on Jazz injured in freak accident

Major Rhythm, upset winner of Sunday's Stars and Stripes Handicap, came out of the race in good shape, but Come on Jazz, the longshot he barely beat, did not.

Come on Jazz pulled up after the race without incident, but in a freak accident, he ran into a fence as jockey Francisco Torres was guiding him off Arlington's turf course and onto the main track to jog back and be unsaddled. When trainer Brian Williamson arrived at his barn shortly after the race, he found Come on Jazz still in the horse ambulance, bleeding profusely from a deep wound across his chest.

"There was a vein severed, and he was just pouring out blood," he said.

Williamson initially feared Come on Jazz might have to be put down, but the injury was closed with stitches and staples, and Come on Jazz will recover. When he races again, however, is uncertain.

Trainer Ed Beam said Major Rhythm "came back great" from the race, but he has picked out no specific spot for the horse's next start.