05/18/2007 12:00AM

More bettors, bigger fields drive handle up


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Granted, the 2007 meet was only eight days old through Thursday, but Arlington Park, with Polytrack and good weather on its side, continues to post some staggering gains over last season's disappointing meet.

Start with attendance, which has increased almost 65 percent compared to the same early-season days in 2006. Arlington did experience an attendance decline last year, which serves to inflate the 2007 figure to some extent, but even taking that into account, and the fact that Arlington has cut back from five-day to four-day racing early this year, the number of fans suddenly coming to the track is shocking. Last year's Mother's Day card was held in poor weather, and only 12,682 attended, but Arlington got 30,405 people here for Sunday's Mother's Day program.

And the ontrack fans are, for a change, betting on Arlington races rather than simulcasts, lured back to the local product by an average field size that is up some 1.6 horses per race compared to a similar time period last year. Ontrack handle on Arlington's races has averaged $622,727 so far this meet, an increase of 56.4 percent from last year. That's partly because Arlington is carding 10 races per day compared to nine in 2006, but one race per day does not come close to completely accounting for the change.

The results have pleased and, to some degree, surprised Arlington.

"We decided in our projections we made to take a very conservative approach," said Arlington president Roy Arnold. "We wanted to go up at least a half a horse in field size, and looked for incremental handle increases, but frankly did not budget much handle increase as a result of Polytrack or field size."

As for the attendance improvements, Arnold said that Arlington had marketed harder - using billboards and Internet advertising - than in recent years, and is in the midst of targeting seven local communities in Chicago's Northwest suburbs to attract local fans.

Geier thrilled with three-win day

The trainer Greg Geier won the first race of Arlington's Polytrack era on May 4, and Thursday, he won three more. For Geier, out on his own since his longtime boss Gene Cilio passed away, it was a career afternoon.

"That was a beautiful thing," said Geier, who won two cheaper races, but also captured the featured ninth race with Coolwind, owned by Jim Tafel of Street Sense fame.

Geier took the opener with Easy Fix, who dropped from maiden special weight to maiden-claiming competition, and came back with his second victory in race 4, where Dappled, another class-dropper, circled a field of conditioned $10,000 claimers and won by two lengths. Coolwind took race 9, a third-level allowance with a $50,000 claiming option, by one length over Kindling, a nice rebound after a dismal performance last month in the Sixty Sails Handicap at Hawthorne.

"She had a little trouble over there last time, and I don't think she liked the track, but I know over here she's always liked it," Geier said. "She'd worked really well on Polytrack."

Geier said he'd nominate Coolwind to the Chicago Breeders' Cup Handicap, a seven-furlong stakes here June 16. Geier mentioned the Sept. 8 Arlington Matron as a longer-term goal for Coolwind.

Churubusco drops from stakes

There are plenty of horses entered in Sunday's 10-race card - just none of established high quality.

Occupying the traditional race 9 feature slot is an entry-level allowance sprint for older horses, a race that might not be quite as interesting as the seventh, an entry-level sprint allowance for 3-year-olds. Sandwiched between those two races is a tough-to-figure second-level allowance for Illinois-bred fillies and mares.

Wayne Catalano, leading the trainer standings with six wins through Thursday, won the last 3-year-old entry-level allowance sprint - run May 10 - with a horse named My Best Pal Red, and Catalano might have the right horse for the seventh race, too. Churubusco, in fact, cleared his first allowance condition by almost five lengths at the Hawthorne meet, and runs back here under the race's $50,000 claiming option. He finished a respectable fourth of six last out in the Lost Code Stakes, also at Hawthorne, and has worked twice over Arlington's synthetic surface.

Also worthy of note here is Snowblind Friend, who makes his first 2007 start, and served notice that he might be a decent 3-year-old with a visually impressive maiden win last October at Hawthorne.

* Mary Erickson, who has served as the horse identifier in Chicago for some 30 years, is retiring after Sunday.