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updated: 5/5/2011 4:22 PM

Lots of changes at Arlington Park this season

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  • Joe Lewnard/ photoArlington Park's thoroughbred racing season returns today with a three-day opening weekend featuring larger fields for its races, along with several changes in wagering options. And admission is free on Friday.

    Joe Lewnard/ photoArlington Park's thoroughbred racing season returns today with a three-day opening weekend featuring larger fields for its races, along with several changes in wagering options. And admission is free on Friday.


In the immortal words of Peter Brady, when it's time to change, it's time to change.

And after a season in which the betting handle fell nearly 30 percent and perhaps the only reason attendance didn't dip as well was a pair of Lee DeWyze concerts, it was absolutely time for a change at Arlington Park.

And changes indeed have been made heading into the 2011 season opener today -- from the man running the show, to some new faces on the backstretch, to new wagering opportunities for fans, and even by offering free admission today, a concept unheard of in years past.

But regardless of all those changes, in the end it will be the product on the track that determines whether 2011 is a success or not. Fans betting here and at simulcast outlets across the country don't care if there's a new sports bar on site (though it's very nice) or if every Sunday is Family Day, they want big, competitive fields on which to wager.

And that's probably the biggest change that has to be made if Arlington is to bounce back.

A look at the opening day card shows things are off to a good start in that department. Friday's card features three 12-horse fields and an overall average of more than 9 horses per race. Saturday's Derby Day card has similar numbers.

That's a good change. If it holds.

New general manager Tony Petrillo is optimistic.

"I think so," he said. "With the 4 days a week racing and with a lot of fresh horses we have coming in ... I think we can. It might take a little bit of work, but I think (racing secretary) Chris Polzin has the right condition book written for what we have on the backstretch.

"I'm very optimistic about this."

One of the biggest changes Petrillo instituted to try to ensure just that has caused quite a stir. The plan, in a nutshell, says that any race with a field with six or fewer horses will run for 85 percent of the listed purse with the remaining 15 percent being set aside for purses later in the meet.

That prompted perennial leading owner Frank C. Calabrese to voice his displeasure.

"What are we going to do? If we go back to Arlington and we have a five-horse race and you've got your horse in there and you're supposed to get $18,000," Calabrese said, "they take $3,000 away and another 3 percent they're putting in some kind of deal that I know nothing about."

After weighing his options, Calabrese decided not to return to Arlington this summer, opting instead to run his horses in Florida. And for the day-to-day bettors, Calabrese's absence may be the most noticeable change of all in an offseason of change for Petrillo and Co.

"I really believe it will be a good 2011," said Petrillo, who replaced Roy Arnold in the Arlington chain of command. "I think people are going to find it new and very refreshing.

Here are a few other changes you'll see at Arlington this summer:

Arlington International Racecourse?

Nah, they're going to stick with the Arlington Park moniker despite having Russian trainer Gennadi Dorochenko and European trainer Gerard Butler sending horses here this summer.

In addition, a few other new names of note on the Arlington barn list include Tim Ice, trainer of the 2009 Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird, who will have 25 horses stabled here; Mike Maker, who is returning after several years and will have 35 head; Patrick Byrne (1997 Horse of the Year Favorite Trick), is slated to have 14 horses based locally; Eric Reed, who will up his local contingent to 20, and Clay Bischoff, who will have 10 horses stabled here this year.

You bet:

Hey, the quinella is back! But just on Sundays.

Actually the bigger news is the track plans to lower the minimum wager on the Pick 4 and Pick 5 to 50 cents and lower the takeout rate on the Pick 5 and High 5 to 15 percent.

"This should help the Pick 5 carryover pool grow more rapidly to ensure the possibility of large carryover pools resulting in potentially huge payoff pools," said GM Tony Petrillo. "Customers have been responsive to wagers with minimums under $1, and we're glad to offer our Pick 4 bettors that option as well."

Times they are a'changing:

The three-day racing weekend at Arlington, which begins today, features three different starting times, so have a pencil and paper ready. Here we go: Friday's first post is 3 p.m.; Saturday's Kentucky Derby Day card kicks off at 12:15, and Sunday's Mother's Day spectacular features a 1 p.m. first post.