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Article updated: 5/6/2011 6:39 AM

A new season and a new GM at Arlington Park

By Deborah Donovan

For Tony Petrillo, it's all about relationships.

Walking Arlington Park Thursday on the day before the start of his first season as general manager, Petrillo stops to thank owner and trainer John Haran for adding a horse to a race with a short field.

He said Haran will get an incentive like a gift card for dinner or an extra box seat for guests.

It costs the track money when there aren't many horses in a race, he said. And this year Petrillo's team made the controversial decision to hold back part of a purse for future races when fewer than seven horses run.

Moving on to stroll through the track's six kitchens, Petrillo says it's important to chat with folks like Mario Filippelli, executive chef for Levy Restaurants, who is helping out with the opening weekend but now spends most of his time at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates.

"I might get a good idea from what they do at Sears," said Petrillo, who is starting his 18th year at the track.

In his new role, Petrillo is responsible for the track's overall strategic planning, staffing and capital improvements, as well as marketing that includes social media and this year has added television advertising to attract young customers.

It's easy to see that Petrillo, whose most recent job at the track was vice president of facilities and operations, still has a great affection for the physical charms of the place.

He walks the grandstand building from top to bottom, noticing little things like wires out of place on a gaming machine in the Paddock Pub. And while he doesn't take notes, he says he'll write things down when he gets back to his office.

"My goal is to be more and more out with our customers," he said. "If they have an issue I'll give them a business card, tell them to call and someone will respond to them."

The manager insists he's bad with names, but it's not obvious when he calls out greetings like "Welcome back, Harry."

"Most of the people here have been around a long time and helped me in some form," he explains.

Petrillo, who a few years ago went up on a crane to inspect a problem with the park's water tower, points out that the symbol on the tank was being painted Thursday to match the "Running A" logo that was tweaked this year with a new green border. Across the paddock, carpenters replace rotten wood on a prominent part of a roof.

Petrillo acts like this is a typical thing businesses do right before opening day.

Few people approach him with problems. One contractor asks where he's supposed to set bricks for an ice cream stand in the picnic area, saying he has called "a thousand" people and no one knows. Petrillo explains in a few words where he wants them laid.

The general manager insists he's not nervous about predictions that the track and the whole racing industry in Illinois are in real trouble. Arlington Park has enough new programs, including a new website, different musical bands and other ways to attract new customers while keeping older ones happy, he believes.

It will survive until the legislature agrees on a way to help get larger purses for horsemen and improve the park's core product, he said.

Many people are counting on that, Petrillo said. On any given weekend day the track might employ 2,000 to 4,000 people, with 2,000 more residing temporarily on the backstretch and another 2,500 coming in to provide services. And that doesn't count the farmers who grow food for the industry.

"Weather is the only thing I worry about," Petrillo insists. "We've got a great team of people here. My big challenge this year is to not micromanage."

Here are some other tidbits from Petrillo.

• How he picks a horse: "Well, I might bet if a horse has a name like one of my kids."

• How he feels about Haley Reinhart, Wheeling resident on "American Idol": "I'd love to do a show again like we did for Lee DeWyze last year. Even if she doesn't make it to the final three, we should have a party for her because she's accomplished a lot."

• Petrillo loves showing off the marble and brass bathrooms for the private suites, and says Japanese visitors took pictures of them because they are so outstanding.

• But he also has been known to help wrap hot dogs in a kitchen when he's found that's where the day's stress was.

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