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updated: 5/2/2014 1:15 AM

No shortage of horses as Arlington track opens

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  • Racing secretary Chris Polzin, left, and track president Tony Petrillo expect to have more than 2,000 horses stabled at Arlington International this season, which would be about 300 more than last year. Arlington opens its season today.

       Racing secretary Chris Polzin, left, and track president Tony Petrillo expect to have more than 2,000 horses stabled at Arlington International this season, which would be about 300 more than last year. Arlington opens its season today.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Arlington International's famed turf course will not be in use to open its racing season on Friday. The harsh winter and permafrost will postpone any turf races until the root structure firms up, track officials said.

       Arlington International's famed turf course will not be in use to open its racing season on Friday. The harsh winter and permafrost will postpone any turf races until the root structure firms up, track officials said.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer/2013 file

 
 

As the historic racetrack on the corner of Euclid and Wilke opens its gates for another season today, more than 2,000 horses are expected to find a home on the Arlington International Racecourse backstretch this summer.

"The number of horses should be as large as it has been since 2008," said Tony Petrillo, the track's president since 2010. "If all the trainers come who say they will, we'll have a good season. We would have about 300 more horses than a year ago."

The main reason for the larger head count is because Keeneland Race Course will begin construction May 19 on a new dirt track to replace its Polytrack synthetic surface.

"With Keeneland's track not available, a lot of people are looking for another competitive horse meet where they can run and not have to ship their horses," Petrillo said.

"Secondly, we expect a very high interest in our stakes program with many larger stables bringing quality stake horses. We also have a solid overnight purse structure top to bottom to reward daily purses of $220,000."

Petrillo expects the track to draw a larger string of horses across all categories, which leads to better wagering opportunities for gimmick bets that involve multiple races. He said it also would bring higher quality stakes that the wagering public will appreciate.

"Trainers can now bring their whole stable and not worry about finding spots for their horses or having to ship out," Petrillo added.

Racing secretary Chris Polzin hopes to be able to mix things up a little more when he creates the racing lineup.

"As long as everyone shows up we seem to have an overabundance of horses," he said. "With Keeneland going to dirt, it should help us. A lot of people would stay there and train their horses. So now they're scrambling to find places."

Among the trainers expected to house horses at Arlington, Polzin said, are Phil Sims, Mike Maker and Darrin Miller. Among the returnees from last year are defending champion Wayne Catalano and runner-up Larry Rivelli.

Pavel Vashchenko could bring as many as 60 horses to the backside.

"When I visited his farm in Tampa, he had 185 horses in training," Polzin said. "There's a 7-furlong dirt course and 6½-furlong turf course. So as the season goes along, he'll have horses getting ready. He has a nice stock of horses training."

Jockey Emmanuel Esquivel, who made history by winning the 2013 Arlington riding title as an apprentice (83 wins, $1.8 million in purse earnings), is returning to defend his title after riding in New York over the winter.

He will try to become the first back-to-back champ since Rene Dougas in 2008. If he does, he will join a prestigious list that includes Eddie Arcaro, Bill Hartack, Earlie Fires and Eddie Delahoussaye.

One newcomer expected to ride this summer is 26-year-old Sheldon Russell, who over the last six-plus years won titles at Colonial (2010 and 2011) and Pimlico (2011).

Among the standouts he has ridden is 2010 Arlington Handicap champion Rahystrada. Russell steered Rahystrada to victory the 2011 Grade III Colonial Turf Cup.

Turf racing is always a highlight each summer at Arlington, but it may take awhile before fans are betting their favorite runner on the Arlington green.

"Last year, right off the bat, we were running two or three races a week on the turf," Polzin said. "But with the perma frost from this past winter, it doesn't look like we'll have that opportunity. I'm told there is enough root to grass. But you still don't need to be running (on the sod) at the beginning of May when you can be running at the end of September.

"You've got to be careful. I know everyone doesn't want to hear that, but it is what it is."

And it's going to stay Polytrack at Arlington, which will be only one of five tracks with the synthetic surface after this year along with Golden Gate Fields, Presque Isle Downs, Woodbine and Turfway Park.

Like Keeneland, Del Mar is replacing its synthetic surface with dirt after its 2014 meet. Santa Anita switched back to dirt in 2010.

"Statistically, Polytrack heavily favors a safer surface with less breakdowns," Petrillo said. "Last year we had only three catastrophic breakdowns on the Polytrack, which is a big change from the average of 19 to 22 on dirt courses in same number of race days."

Petrillo believes the reason other tracks have gone back to the dirt is because that's where trainers want to run their horses.

"A lot of horsemen are set in their ways and don't want to disrupt their training regimen," he said.

Of course, Arlington runs some of its biggest races, such as the Aug. 16 Arlington Million, on the turf.

"We probably have one of the premier turf meets in the country," Petrillo added. "We have a turf course that is 130 feet wide and is able to use 15 different starting lanes."

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