05/01/2007 11:00PM

Polytrack lures 'em in for opener

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CHICAGO - The track surface at Arlington Park might be gray, but the mood is bright.

And that would seem strange, since Arlington suffered through one of its toughest recent seasons in 2006. Handle and attendance dropped markedly, and a rash of breakdowns - which began in May, crested in July, and subsided late in the meet - attracted local and national media attention.

But with an investment of between $10 million and $11 million, Arlington has potentially turned a negative into a positive. In January, Arlington began installation of a Polytrack racing surface, a project completed last month. That synthetic gray material with the flecks of colored fiber won't directly boost a middle-class purse structure, but Arlington hopes Polytrack can revitalize its racing product.

And that is not just a blind hope. Arlington drew 106 entries on Friday's opening day 10-race card, a far greater number than for last season's opening day. Arlington can house 2,140 horses, but as of April 30, 2006, just 676 of them were here. On April 30 this year, the horse population stood at a somewhat shocking 1,474, according to Kevin Greely, Arlington's racing secretary. There were empty stalls throughout 2006, but Greely hopes the backstretch fills within a couple weeks.

Greely spent long hours hustling entries last season, trying to put together usable fields during his first year at Arlington. Asked to explain the dramatic population increase, he didn't hesitate: "Polytrack."

Arlington's Polytrack, manufactured at a plant 120 miles away and trucked in during the winter, is identical to Keeneland's main track. Keeneland's surface has been biased toward outside closers during much of its two race meets, and often has produced fast times. Workout times at Arlington have been quick during seven days of breezes, but no one yet knows how this particular Polytrack will play. Few, however, doubt that the surface will be safer and kinder on horses than the old dirt track.

That could lead to increased field size, something Arlington desperately needs. Last year, Arlington averaged just 7.44 starters per race, a figure the track is expected to better this season. The Polytrack should help, but Arlington officials also are focused on maximizing the horses they have on hand. A four-day racing week will be in effect until mid-June, and Arlington expects more this year from the horsemen on hand.

"Our starts per stall declined the last four years, and we need to work on that," said Roy Arnold, Arlington's second-year president.

Said Greely: "When I allocated the stalls this year, we focused on getting some new outfits in here with more higher-priced claimers and allowance horses."

The leader of that pack is easy to find: Todd Pletcher, who has never stabled at Arlington, was allotted 46 stalls. Other trainers new to the meet are Peter Walder (22 stalls), Darrin Miller (24 stalls), Terry Gestes (22 stalls), Ralph Nicks (14 stalls), and Neil Howard (12 stalls).

The leading rider from 2006, Chris Emigh, is back to defend his title, but he will have competition when former Arlington champ Rene Douglas moves his tack here. The end of the Churchill Downs meet will bring in Robby Albarado, Mark Guidry, and others.

Also, Greely said that a horse shuttle Arlington operates from Kentucky will have an added dimension this year, picking up horses at Keeneland - where as many as 1,000 horses could be stabled this summer - before going on to Churchill and Arlington. Churchill, which runs through July, has much higher purses, but Arlington has the synthetic surface.

Also in play is Arlington's world-class grass course, home as usual to the highlight of the season, the Grade 1 Arlington Million, scheduled this year for Aug. 11. Greely said the course is in good shape, and he planned to card four turf races Saturday.

The opening-day feature, however, the $45,000 Shecky Green, comes at six furlongs on the main track, and it attracted a well-matched field of seven 3-year-olds. Awesome Hero, a synthetic-track specialist with 3 wins in 4 Polytrack starts, might rate as the horse to beat, but the nod for the top slot goes to Who Let the Cat In, who had a world of trouble in a close third-place finish in a second-level allowance race on April 22 at Hawthorne.

* Arlington will offer a $50,000 guaranteed pick six every Saturday.