06/02/2002 11:00PM

Saving the best of the meet for last

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Wednesday's opening of Arlington Park's marathon 107-day meet is welcome enough, but it's the end that has everybody excited. Arlington hosts the Breeders' Cup for the first time this year. That itself is a coup for the track, but officials also hope the Breeders' Cup will galvanize its position both locally and nationally, positions weakened when the track closed for economic reasons in 1998 and 1999.

Arlington received a boost last season when it became integrated into Churchill Downs Inc. The Breeders' Cup, track officials hope, will provide another step forward.

"It's exposure," said Frank Gabriel, Arlington's vice president for racing and operations. "It brings great focus and it sets the tone for a whole meet. Every time you see 'Breeders' Cup,' you also see 'Arlington Park.' It allows you to market locally and it's good for the simulcast product."

Arlington has limited seating capacity by Breeders' Cup standards, so 35,000 temporary seats will be installed in late August, after Arlington Million Day. Gabriel said the construction project is scheduled to conclude one week before the Breeders' Cup.

Arlington has shifted and added stakes because of the Breeders' Cup, and meet highlights, falling in line with Churchill's strategy, are a series of big, multi-stakes days.

In addition to the Prairie State Festival, the International Festival of Racing, and Million Preview Day, Arlington has created Preview Weekend in the Park, four stakes on Sept. 28-29 that are preps for the Oct. 26 Breeders' Cup.

As it did last year, Arlington's season is broken into two tiers, with purses to be raised during the Festival of Racing, which runs from July 11 to Sept. 2.

The purse increase coincides with the conclusion of Churchill's summer meet, but even before Churchill ends there will be a greater Kentucky presence this season. Trainers Tom Amoss, Carl Nafzger, Dallas Stewart, and Dave Vance will be more prominent this meet. Jerry Hollendorfer, who came from California with more than 50 horses last year and won the training title, is back again, and Eric Kruljac, another Californian, has a string of horses here this year.

The opening day card would have been stronger with the Awad Stakes, but only two were entered and the race was scrapped. Instead, a third-level allowance and a pair of maiden turf races highlight the first program.