05/11/2004 11:00PM

Purses at issue as season opens

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Green-clad employees cleaned 1,250 television monitors. Four hundred and forty-eight betting machines were programmed. Don't even ask how many vacuum cleaners roared or how many planter beds were sprinkled this week at Arlington Park.

The captain here is Dick Duchossois, still going strong at 82. The Duchossois way means no blade of grass will be misaligned for Friday's season opener.

But the devil at Arlington is not in the details, not now. The issues hit you over the head. Purses in Chicago have stagnated. The expected average daily distribution this meet is a little more than $200,000, the same as last year. An open maiden race at Arlington offers a $26,000 pot. Less than seven hours to the south, Churchill Downs - Arlington's sister track under the Churchill Downs Inc. banner - gives away $46,600 for the same race.

"As beautiful as this track is, as wonderful as Chicago is, if you've got a horse, you're going to go where the money is," said Cliff Goodrich, Arlington's president. "We don't have any magic bullets."

Goodrich and many other people say that Arlington needs slot-machine revenue to solve the problem. A push for racetrack slots failed last year, but it is on again as the Illinois Legislature wrestles a budget crisis. The state gambling landscape is hard to read and rich in political intrigue. No one knows how things will unfold, but racetrack officials hope for one of three things: ontrack slots, a revenue stream from a proposed 10th Illinois riverboat casino, or a tiny piece of action from casino companies statewide.

"The next three weeks are going to be key for us," Goodrich said.

The wait-and-see mood carries over to horsemen. Many insist that increased purses are needed to offset rising costs. Still, by Monday, the 35 barns housing 2,140 stalls will basically be full. Gone this season are trainers Al Stall and Eoin Harty, but Jeff Thornbury, Bill Helmbrecht, and Austin Smith have moved in, and Bret Calhoun's sprawling stable will have a stronger presence.

There is a new younger crop, too. Becky Maker has 28 stalls, Larry Rivelli 22. Dale Bennett has 26, one for a colt named Marley's Revenge.

Marley's Revenge was one of eight 3-year-olds entered in the opening-day feature, the six-furlong, $38,000 Shecky Greene Handicap. Marley's Revenge finished fourth and Danieltown second on April 18 at Hawthorne, and while Bennett pointed Marley's Revenge to the Arlington opener, Danieltown went to Prairie Meadows to beat a horse named Jimmy Cracked Corn, another one entered in the Shecky Greene.

These familiar foes share one trait - speed - and the Shecky Greene could set up for Intrinsic Worth, a Keeneland sprint allowance winner in his last start. Intrinsic Worth won his maiden here last year, but then lost four in a row while finding his niche as a one-run sprinter.

"His pedigree said two turns and turf, but that's not him," said trainer Mike Stidham, who appears poised for a strong meet.

Quick Action, a D. Wayne Lukas-trained colt, also turns back in distance after finishing fifth in the one-mile Derby Trial. Lukas will have 35 horses here this year, and can easily ship from his Kentucky and New York strings for Arlington's major stakes.

As always, the Arlington Million tops the menu, with the Million and Arlington's two other Grade 1's, the Beverly D. and the Secretariat, scheduled for Aug. 14. But Arlington starts slowly, with just two stakes carded between opening day and June 19.

At a glance: Arlington Park

RACING SCHEDULE: 96 days; May 14 through Sept. 19; dark Mondays and Tuesdays except Monday, May 31, Monday, July 5, and Monday, Sept. 6

POST TIME: 1 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday; 3 p.m. Friday (May 14 to Aug. 27); 2:30 p.m. Friday (Sept. 3, 10, 17). Special Post Times: July 4, 2:30; Aug. 14, 11:45 a.m.

HIGHLIGHTS:

DATERACEGRADEPURSE

July 3Arlington Classic2$200,000

July 24American Derby2250,000

July 31Washington Park H.2350,000

Aug. 14Arlington Million1$1 million

Aug. 14Beverly D.1750,000

Aug. 14 Secretariat1400,000

SEATING: $3 reserved; $5 grandstand box seat; $5 clubhouse box seat; $2 standard simulcast reserved; $3 deluxe simulcast reserved

SIMULCASTING: Trackside Arlington Park open daily; phone (847) 385-7671

PARKING: General, free; preferred, $5; valet, $9

LOCATION: At Illinois Route 53 and Euclid Ave. in Arlington Heights, IL

PHONE: (847) 385-7500

INTERNET: www.arlingtonpark.com