Top horse owner not sure it's worth returning to Arlington Park
Frank C. Calabrese isn't accustomed to being in this position.
In years past, the dominant thoroughbred owner at Arlington Park for the last decade would simply bring a string of 40 or more horses here and watch them win at an amazing rate.
But all that winning at Arlington hasn't translated into financial success, he says, and that is one of the reasons the 82-year-old is mulling his options, one of which is chasing bigger returns at Calder Racecourse in Florida instead of returning to Arlington this summer.
"Ask me how much money I've lost," Calabrese said in a phone interview from Florida. "I sold a horse for $2 million one year and I still lost money that year.
"I don't know what to do. Everyone keeps calling to see if I'm coming back. ... I don't know. I've got to sit down with my trainer and ask him what he thinks.
"I know what's best for me right now ... follow where the money is."
The money hasn't been at Arlington lately, comparatively speaking, and a new rule at the track for 2011 isn't helping sway Calabrese to return to the track he loves.
Arlington Park and the Illinois Thoroughbred Horseman's Association have an agreement to bank some purse monies based on the number of horses in races.
According to Arlington, the purses listed for overnight races will be based on a field of seven or more. Any race field with six or fewer horses will run for 85 percent of the listed purse with the remaining 15 percent being set aside.
"We worked with the horsemen; we vetted it out pretty thoroughly," said Arlington general manager Tony Petrillo, who spent a recent Saturday at Hawthorne discussing it with about 150 horsemen.
Just what would the loss of Calabrese this summer mean for racing at Arlington?
"I'm not sure," Petrillo said. "Frank does put a lot of starters out there, but at the same time, we've been talking to a lot to our customers -- we've had a number of focus groups -- and one issue arising is that of prohibitive favorites, (a role) mainly occupied by Frank. They say they opt out of races more often than not when they see he's going off at 3-5 or 1-5 odds.
"On the other side, he's got a great bloodstock program, he brings a lot of good horses here and he puts a lot of starters in races."
Calabrese isn't a fan of the plan.
"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," he said, "they take $3,000 away and another 3 percent they're putting in some kind of deal that I know nothing about.
"I've talked to some trainers who usually send 50 horses (to Arlington) and they're sending 15. Some that were sending 40 are sending 20. What (Arlington) is talking about is if they have a five-horse field they're going to take back some of the purse. That scares me. There's no money in it anyway."
So Calabrese is hedging his bets.
"This is the first time (I've faced this dilemma)," he said. "We've put applications in a couple of places. I just want to see what's going to happen at Arlington.
"I'm just tired of seeing it. I say what's on my mind now."
Petrillo, however, says it's too early to jump to conclusions.
"We've seen some positives on this issue, but we won't really know until it plays out," Petrillo said. "We're going to look at this on a weekly basis, then in 45 days we're going to come to a decision on what our next course of action is going to be."
The purse money, the reduced daily handle in the past few years and the smaller fields have developed into a vicious cycle at Arlington.
One factor in those reduced numbers, according to Calabrese, may be the synthetic surface Arlington installed to replace its traditional dirt track.
"I've never complained about the track surface," he said. "Ninety percent of the trainers moaned about it constantly. We've been lucky; I haven't had any breakdowns there or anything. But I know that's probably why they don't have any handle -- the bettors aren't betting the track.
"I watch the board like crazy. I watch what Gulfstream has, what Tampa Bay has."
What Gulfstream has is slot revenues enhancing their purses. Its average daily purses, including stakes, for the current meet started out at around $400,000 but recently were increased by 10 percent. Arlington's average daily purses in 2010, including stakes, were $255,000.
Gulfstream also has average field sizes of nearly 10 horses per race, while Arlington averaged 8 per race in 2010.
"Gamblers have bigger fields and better chances to make money," Calabrese said.
As do those horsemen based in Florida, but despite that, Calabrese would still prefer returning to Arlington this summer.
"I would," he said. "I've got a house there. I like Arlington. I don't want to do anything to hurt Mr. D. We've been friends for 30 years and any way I could help him I'd do it. But I don't know what's going to happen."
"My family is there. I've been gone since October. It would be nice to go back there. I know (trainer) Wayne Catalano has family there and he's talking about going back, but he's also talking about going where he could make some money. Everyone's talking the same way."
It would be a shock to the system not having Calabrese on site at Arlington for the 2011 meet.
"I hate to see anyone leave us, especially someone who brings in such good horses like Frank," Petrillo said. "And he's a good bettor, too. I have a good personal relationship with Frank and like having him here."
And Calabrese likes being at Arlington as well, but ...
"I just don't want to die a loser," he said. "I want to make money one year."