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Despite strong finish, big drop in Arlington wagering
By Mike Spellman | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 9/29/2010 4:49 PM

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For many, the highlight of the 91-day racing season at Arlington Park that concluded Sunday had to be the tears of joy shed all around the place on Million Day when chairman Richard L. Duchossois' Éclair de Lune won the Beverly D. Stakes, a race named in memory of his late wife.

It was Mr. D's first victory in the Beverly D.,and by far the feel-good moment of the summer at Arlington.

By the time the meet ended and the final numbers were tallied, there were probably more tears shed at Arlington.

And not tears of joy.

A one-year decline of 33 percent in all wagering sources or handle, and a 37 percent drop in out-of-state money bet on Arlington races will do that.

Despite those daunting numbers, Arlington president Roy Arnold put a positive spin on the situation, saying the on-track handle and other numbers at the track itself including an increase in attendance left him "very satisfied. I'm proud of the way we performed this year."

As for the decline in out-of-state money bet on Arlington, Arnold cited three main factors:

• The New York Racing Commission's initial refusal to accept the simulcast contract from Arlington and other tracks.

"New York City is a major market for us and we were unilaterally cut out of that market for about a month," Arnold said. "That hurt."

• The decision of New Jersey track Monmouth Park to run a three-day-a-week schedule with mega purses this summer instead of its usual four-day schedule.

"We were one of the tracks most harmed by the Monmouth experiment," Arnold said. "When there are no (Monmouth) customers on (their dark) days, it took us out of circulation. We lost the ability to reach that customer base four days a week in the height of summer."

• The high number of horses scratched, which reduced field sizes and made Arlington races less attractive to bettors here and across the country.

"We need to work with the horsemen on scratch rates," Arnold said. "We have no interest in unhealthy or unfit horses running, but a large number of scratches weren't injury related. We can't have a successful program with the high number of scratches we've seen."

Arnold said part of the problem was that trainers and owners were "being much more careful or attempting to find the perfect race (to run in)."

That and the fact it took some trainers longer to get their horses acclimated to running on the synthetic surface at Arlington.

To combat that aspect, Arnold said the track will open its backstretch a full month before the 2011 season and Arlington staff will work harder with representatives at Keeneland (also synthetic) to "make better use of horses at the start of the meet."

As for the start of the 2010 Arlington meet with its plethora of six-horse or less fields?

"In the first 45 days it was atrocious," Arnold admitted. "But in the last part of the meet we recovered and were back up to 2009 levels."

But that's still not good enough for Arnold, who is aiming high and is "guardedly optimistic" the track might finally get slots.

"The reason I think it's going to come is because it's good for the state of Illinois," he said. "My hope is by 2011 we would have a resolution."

If approved during the upcoming veto session, Arnold said he could foresee it taking up to six months to get through the gaming board process and then Arlington would have some type of temporary slots area open "while we build a more permanent facility."

As for the slots initial impact on daily purses at Arlington, Arnold said it would not be unrealistic see purses of $350,000 a day, if not more.

This season Arlington's purses averaged more than $250,000 a day.