If you've been to Arlington Park over the last 17 years and haven't run into Tony Petrillo at some point, well maybe you aren't really trying.
That's because it doesn't just seem like Petrillo is everywhere, the guy really is. By his own conservative estimate, Petrillo has walked about 4,000 miles through the Arlington Park facility over the years.
Recently, the 49-year-old walked into a new role at Arlington after being named general manager, taking over some duties that had been assigned to Roy Arnold, who resigned as president following a choppy five-year run.
Talk about night and day differences.
Where Arnold came into the job with no racing experience, Petrillo has nothing but. Where Arnold was rarely seen pressing the flesh, Petrillo probably couldn't breathe if he didn't. Where Arnold would filibuster on one topic until it wore you down, Petrillo will get right to the point and move on because there are other things to be done.
In other words, there's a new boss in town and his name is Tony Petrillo. The GM recently took time to talk with the Daily Herald about all things Arlington Park, from last season's struggles to what the future may hold.
Q. For those who don't know, what is Tony Petrillo all about from a fan's perspective?
A. I think I'm very easy to talk to, very open. I have a strong desire to listen to their likes and dislikes and have a strong desire to engage them.
If I meet someone, I'm not hesitant to re-engage them in a conversation and follow-up with them. I think that's really important to let your customers know that you're listening. And you respond to them. Everyone who sends in a letter either a compliment or complaint gets a response.
Q. You probably knew almost everything that goes on here; has anything surprised you about this job so far?
A. No. I've been here 17 years, and prior to that I was with the racing commission for eight years. I know a lot of the customers, a lot of people from the press, a lot of horsemen and a lot of the employees very well. I've had opportunities to pretty much work in every department while I was here.
Q. So you know this place from the ground up.
A. I guess you could say that.
Q. Why should horse racing fans be happy that you're the GM?
A. One big point is I'm from the community and I'm really grounded here in Arlington Heights. I serve on the zoning commission. I've worked in different charitable organizations locally here, served on the Festivals Days committee.
The same could be said for Arlington Park. I'm very much grounded in the roots at Arlington Park wanting to bring the best of service, the best of entertainment and really offer a family atmosphere for everyone.
Q. Why should horsemen be happy that you're the GM.
A. Well, I'm a real hands-on guy. I like to talk face to face with people, identify problems, find solutions and execute on those. And knowing that you don't have all the answers, then you seek them out.
I think that's one benefit I have with the horsemen. I've been working very closely with them the past few years and prior to that I've always had a pretty strong relationship with a core of horsemen. The last couple of years I've kind of broadened that core.
Q. With all of your walking and talking to the fans, what are their top two complaints and what are the top two things they are happy about?
A. Let's start with the positive. The things that they love are the atmosphere and the facility and the service they receive. And sometimes the complaints are they don't get enough of it.
Really, there's not a lot of complaints but there are a lot of suggestions. One thing is people would always like to see the quality of racing be a little bit better. When they come to Arlington Park they feel like they're coming to a quality place that has high standards.
But that's one of the things we have less control of the horses that are put out on the track.
Q. The small fields last year, is there anything you can do about that?
A. I think working with the horsemen, what we need to do is take information and share that with one another, be transparent with that information, identify the problems and start prioritizing and finding solutions to them by working collaboratively.
Q. Polytrack … are you happy with it?
A. You can't argue with the results. We see less catastrophic breakdowns on the Polytrack. It's been a great learning experience for me. We've done a lot of testing over the years so I've become more knowledgeable. Our track superintendent has become more knowledgeable about how to maintain the Polytrack and offer one of the best and safest race surfaces possible.
Q. You can skew the numbers, but the bottom line is last year wasn't the best year for the track, right?
Q. How do you make next year better?
A. Well there are some things you really can't control: The handle on our product; there were a number of factors with Monmouth; the absence of having Del Mar and Saratoga early on; the New York OTB situation.
We're hoping those factors work themselves out and we see a better result in the handle.
One thing we need to do better here locally is engaging our customers. One of the mistakes I think people have is they think they bet a dollar and we get the dollar. Contrary to the reality of things, we get a very small margin on the dollar.
We have to do our best to put the best simulcast signal out there that is really appealing and working real hard to keep the field sizes up.
Q. That's one of the keys; people want to see big fields.
A. They want to see big fields, big pools that's going to be a big challenge. That's one of the issues we need to work with the horsemen on.
Right now, the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association has a great board and a good business sense so I look forward to working with them to find some solutions to the field size issues. It's not like we don't have the horses on the backstretch, we have to get them in the races.
Q. How do the recent election results help or hurt Arlington as far as slots or legislative assistance is concerned?
A. The House, Senate and governor's mansion remain the same so everything remains the same in Springfield as its been for many years.
In the last 20 or so years we've seen all kinds of legislation; most of it goes nowhere or ends up in litigation somewhere. So, from my perspective, we can never suggest we know what the General Assembly is planning. After all my years in racing as a regulator and an operator I'll never presume to have the knowledge of what will happen in Springfield.
Q. OK, last question: will you still walk this place as much as GM as you did before?
A. Absolutely. Even more so.