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updated: 8/14/2011 7:16 AM

Arlington Park boss expands track's reach, stature

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  • Tony Petrillo, general manager of Arlington Park, on the phone in the winners tent Saturday after the Arlington Million at Arlington Park.

      Tony Petrillo, general manager of Arlington Park, on the phone in the winners tent Saturday after the Arlington Million at Arlington Park.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer


Tony Petrillo's goal is to make Arlington Park an international racing hub, and his first Arlington Million as general manager of the racetrack made a good start.

"The horses this year represent five different countries, with 11 horses from out of the country. We've become the international stop for horses before the Breeders' Cup," he said in an interview. "No other set of races has more international horses other than the Breeder's Cup."

Horses competing in Saturday's three special races of the International Festival of Racing hail from France, Great Britain, Germany, Ireland and South Africa.

And European horses won all three of the featured races. Cape Blanco of Ireland took the Arlington Million, Treasure Beach of Great Britain won the Secretariat Stakes, and Stacelita of France captured the Beverly D.

The International Racing Bureau is an organization that has helped the Arlington Heights track attract European horses, but Petrillo thinks personal connections will promote these races even more.

"We want the kind of personal relationship that Mr. D. (Chairman Richard Duchossois) established when he was more hands on," said Petrillo, who has worked for the track for 17 years, most recently as vice president of facilities and operations.

"We want to continue to re-establish that relationship that we had early on in the heyday, the late '80s and early '90s."

Petrillo has traveled to Japan to enhance Arlington Park's relationship with the Japanese horse industry.

"To get a horse population with international connections increases the competitiveness of horses here in the United States," Petrillo said. "It also exposes international horsepeople to how great racing is here in Illinois and the Midwest."

With 10 horses, the Million had one more horse than last year, and the 11 in the Beverly D. for mares and fillies represented two more entrants. The Secretariat Stakes saw nine horses race, three more than in 2010.

Petrillo celebrated the fact that Gerard Butler from Ireland and England, who had Pachattack in Saturday's Beverly D., and Gennardi Dorochenko, originally from Russia, who entered L'Aiglon in the Secretariat, have based horses at Arlington this season. Both finished out of the money.

"We want to be an international hub where horsemen come and then race in the rest of the country," Petrillo said.

And when it's a showcase you're after, television exposure is a good idea, so Petrillo is excited that WGN America made the race available to 27 million homes.

"WGN mirrors our standards and our quality. We have associated ourselves with some quality brands this year -- WGN, Bears, Blackhawks, Binny's Beverage Depot, and Northwestern University."

Those promotions have offset some of the attendance losses to the new Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, said Petrillo, who hopes the new fans will come again, and the old ones will return when the novelty wears off the casino.

And what about the greatest of all question marks -- the weather, which threatened all afternoon and rained on two of the big races?

"You can't control Mother Nature," Petrillo said. "We've got a great facility with a lot of indoor space. A race lasts a minute or a minute and 59 seconds. So when there's a little bit of overcast or mist, people can come out and watch the race then go back in. It doesn't affect our Polytrack (artificial turf), and we have the finest turf (grass track) in the world. It takes water very well. Horses run all the time."

And what makes this day of racing so special?

"The Million has such a history, and people know we don't control what happens out on the track," he said. "You never know what's going to happen. It's always a different outcome with different horses and returning ones."

His job Saturday was as an Arlington ambassador, shaking hands with and congratulating as many people as possible, starting with jockeys, trainers and owners of horses in the International Festival's three big races.

"It's different this year," Petrillo said. "I don't have my hands into the dough and kneading it. But we have a great team, and it's the people that bring it all together."