05/06/2003 11:00PM

New meet, but an old problem

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - At last check, Arlington Park was ringed with 30,000 temporary seats and thronged with an orderly mob of 46,000 racing fans, here for the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships. Six months later the bleachers have come down, the crowds are gone until Arlington Million Day in August, and the palatial track is quiet again, with uncertainty - rather than a Breeders' Cup - waiting this season.

Arlington launches a 104-day meet Friday, returning after a two-year hiatus to its traditional racing season, from early May to late September. To accommodate the Breeders' Cup last year, the track pushed its meet back, from June through October.

The traditional schedule is back, but Arlington's identity is in flux. Arlington merged with Churchill Downs Inc. two summers ago, and with last year's late starting date, meets at Churchill and Arlington overlapped by only a couple weeks. This year, the sister tracks run concurrently for two months, and there are only so many horses to go around.

"I think we'll be slow in the beginning, but we're always slow at first," said Frank Gabriel, Arlington's vice-president of racing. "We're not going to get away from the quality."

Gabriel expects Kentucky horsemen to ship horses north for Arlington races once Churchill ends, but for now, Arlington is at a competitive disadvantage. Purses are significantly higher at Churchill - maidens run for $40,000 there, $26,000 here - in part because Arlington and Illinois horsemen agreed to slash purses by 10 percent this meet. Illinois has a budget crisis, and a convoluted state subsidy called recapture wasn't funded last season, causing purses to be overpaid and necessitating the cut.

"We need to have the purses to attract horses from outside the state of Illinois," said Cliff Goodrich, Arlington's president.

The hope is that in the absence of recapture, additional revenue will come from slot machines or a 10th riverboat casino in Illinois, in which tracks have a stake. Ontrack slots legislation was making its way through the state legislature this week, but its fate remains uncertain.

"We're just buying time right now," Goodrich said. "Once the situation's more clear, we're going to be in a better place to assess which direction we're going."

But these rumblings can't diminish one essential fact - Arlington remains Arlington. With one of the country's premier grass courses and a facility that still has the grandeur to awe, Arlington is the focal point of nearly all Illinois horsemen.

And those horsemen will be counted on to fill races, especially early this year. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer's full barn of runners is gone, and Kentucky trainers such as Tom Amoss and Carl Nafzger will be vanning in for particular races, not stabling here.

The ubiquitous Wayne Catalano is back, and trainers Gerald Bennett, Bret Calhoun, and Steve Asmussen will be more active this year. The jockey colony looks much like it did last year, when Rene Douglas ruled the roost. Chris DeCarlo will ride here regularly for the first time, while Marlon St. Julien and Curt Bourque are back following absences.

With no Breeders' Cup, the Arlington Million regains its spot atop the racing calendar. This year's Million is set for Aug. 16, along with the track's other Grade 1 events, the Beverly D. and the Secretariat. Other meet highlights include the Grade 2 Washington Park Handicap July 19, and the Arlington Classic and American Derby for 3-year-olds on turf.

But as Gabriel said, the meet starts slowly, and after Saturday's $100,000 Black Tie Affair Handicap, there are no stakes races scheduled until May 31.

On opening day, a third-level allowance race with a high claiming option highlights the card. Sharp Hawthorne winners El Malicia and Did He Biteyou top the field.