09/19/2004 11:00PM

Overall handle up for the year

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CHICAGO - Arlington Park broke out of the gate slowly but finished full of run, concluding its 2004 meet on Sunday with increases in total and ontrack handle. And Arlington shook off notions that it limps home after Labor Day, with a strong final two weeks bolstered by remarkable closing-day business.

Arlington, which raced 96 days beginning May 14, saw a 1.02 percent increase in average daily overall handle, from $4,084,324 last season to $4,190,711 this year. Average daily ontrack handle rose 3.6 percent, from $559,454 in 2003 to $579,713 this year. Average daily attendance also increased to 7,572, up 427 from 2003.

On the surface, the handle gains seem modest, but they occurred in a difficult industry-wide climate, and mark a dramatic turnaround from midsummer projections.

"At one point, we thought we'd be down 15 percent in export handle," said Cliff Goodrich, president of Arlington. Export handle is the amount bet on Arlington races from outside sources.

This dire forecast came during a wave of wet weather and short fields. Then came improved conditions, the closing of Churchill Downs, and the beginning of Arlington's Summer Festival, with its accompanying purse increase. Business began booming, and by meet's end, even export handle was up for the year. On Sunday's closing-day card, ontrack handle was up 54.4 percent over the same day last season, while total handle was 74.8 percent better, according to Goodrich.

Field size increased this year to 8.2 horses per race, and was 8.5 during the July 21-Sept. 6 Summer Festival. Purses were modestly increased late in the season.

Still, the business forecast is not all sunny. Illinois racetracks failed again this year in a bid for slot machines, and the controversial state-mandated purse subsidy provision called recapture remains a point of contention between horsemen and track operators.

Rene Douglas became the first jockey at Arlington to win four straight riding titles, and like the last three years, he did it easily. He had 125 wins, 39 more than Eusebio Razo Jr.

Frank Kirby held on to take his first training title in 30 years, beating Steve Asmussen 32 wins to 31. The trainer's battle came down to the seventh race on closing day.

Frank Calabrese captured another owners' title, his fifth in a row, with 26 victories.