Even though the schedule is the same as last year with four days a week of live racing from roughly the first of May to the last of September, there are changes--some subtle, some more glaring-- and even some challenges when Arlington Park raises the curtain on another season of racing.
The meet opens Friday May 3, with free admission to all patrons on opening day and coupons for fifty cent hot dogs and fifty cent sodas to the first five thousand through the gates. The meet closes Sunday, September 29.
The first post times will mirror those of the last meet. (All times are given in Central Time) A 1:00 PM first post will be the rule for all days of the meeting, except for Kentucky Derby Day (12:15 PM first post), Arlington Million Day (12:15 pm first post), and "Twilight Fridays" (3:00 pm first post until the end of August, 2:00 pm first post in September). Live days of racing, to the tune of four day weeks, will carryover from the 2012 meeting, with a Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday schedule in place for May and June and a Thursday-through-Sunday schedule in effect from July through September.
But the changes start beyond that.
The Stakes Schedule is a source of some subtle changes. Five overnight stakes that were contested last year weren't renewed for the 2013 meet. The G3 Hanshin Cup advances two weeks forward to the Memorial Day weekend. The Illinois-bred stakes that compromised the Prairie State Festival had their purses trimmed by $25,000 were split over three weekends in June, two stakes a day. Purses and calendar positions of the graded stakes (minus the Hanshin Cup) are the same as last year, however. As usual, the Arlington International Festival of Racing with its Grade 1 turf triple plus one of the Arlington Million, Beverly D., Secretariat, and ungraded American St. Leger serves as the apex of the meet. The festival this year is set for Saturday August 17.
The wagering menu sees some tweaks that will be welcomed by some players. This year, the pick 6 will have its minimum wager set at a dollar ($1.00) and also have a reduced takeout set to fifteen percent (15%). The pick nine will retain the dime ($.10) base from last meet but now carry a jackpot provision, just as the Hi-5 (pentafecta) wager did last meet. Both of the jackpot wagers will have a fifteen percent rake. And they join the 50 cent pick five (note that it does not pay out four-of-five consolations when five-of-five tickets exist) with a takeout set to fifteen percent. The $.10 Pick 9 and $1 Hi-5 will each have a Jackpot pool that carries a uniqueness provision: The Jackpot pool is paid out in only two scenarios: a mandated payout (such as closing day) or when exactly one winning ticket is present. Should multiple winners exist, 50% is carried over and 50% is paid out to those possessing winning tickets. The $1.00 Pick 6 (last six races each day) and $.50 Pick 5 (last five races each day) don't have the uniqueness clause. But all four wagers--Hi5, Pick 5, Pick 6, and Pick 9-- will have 15% takeouts. Those four reduced takeout wagers join the usual staples of the Arlington menu: dollar base rolling Pick 3s, two fifty-cent base Pick 4s,--and as field sizes permit--fifty-cent base trifectas and dime base superfectas. Also, on Wednesdays in May and June, TwinSpires will sponsor the late pick four on the final four races of the day and seed the pool with $40,000. The $40,000 guarantee is voided if a race comes off the turf or if a races has five or less entrants.
One major change occurs in the polytrack races carded for 1 1/16 miles. As Arlington has a 1 1/8 mile circumference, the one mile races use all of the backstretch chute and the 1 1/8 miles are a full lap around. The 1 1/16 mile races, in the past, started at the same position as the 1 1/8 mile races but had a shorter stretch and employed an alternate finish line. That changes for this season, as the starting gate will move west (closer to the first turn) and all races on polytrack will use the same finish line. Because of the closeness to the turn, field size in the 1 1/16 mile races will be capped at eight. Arlington is moving the gate west due mostly to popular demand and slightly due to concerns from horsemen.
The composition of trainers and jockeys will see some changes as well. Last year's leading rider Francisco Torres won't start the meet at Arlington and will likely ply his craft between Churchill Downs and Indiana Downs. That opens the door for perhaps one of the returning veterans, like Rosemary Homeister, Jr., James Graham, Chris Emigh, or Tim Thornton, the leading rider of the recently concluded crosstown Hawthorne Spring meet. Apprentice Emmanuel Esquivel, who was third at Hawthorne, also bears watching. New riders to the colony are Corey Nakatani and Kent Desormeaux. While both riders rode in Southern California for years, the former comes from wintering in Southern California and the latter from wintering in South Florida.
Donnie Von Hemel exits the training colony to summer at Churchill. New to the Arlington training fraternity, however, is Mark Casse. Casse trained Uncaptured, the 2012 Canadian Horse of the Year and had local success last year with POOL PLAY, who last Fall was second in the G3 Washington Park and won the G2 Hawthorne Gold Cup. Casse will join local regulars like Wayne Catalano, Chris Block, Larry Rivelli, and Mike Stidham.
New for the 2013 meet will be a fan education initiative, Arlington University. Arlington University won't offer classes, but will offer educational advice to patrons and give guided tours. According to an Arlington press release, they'll be in the west end of the Million Tent. Weather permitting, the university will open thirty minutes before the first on all Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend.
For Arlington Park, the 2013 meet starts with changes but also some challenges. For the start of the 2012 meet, the northwest suburban oval was entangled in negotiations with the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemens' Association (ITHA), and an informal impromptu boycott impaired the first two days of the meet last year. This year, both parties have set down their sabres and hammered out a two-year contract. Entries for the first two days are in much better shape than last year. Ditto for a turf course that should be more forgiving this meet, thanks to an abnormally wet April.
The recently concluded Hawthorne Spring meet was dogged by cold, wet conditions that knocked out the almost the entire turf season. Inventory was down as well, as the track attempted to recover from the EHV-1 quarantine that clouded the 2012 Fall meet. The short fields and foul weather led to a 22% reduction in daily average handle from the 2012 meet. Such inventory concerns could be an issue at Arlington, with Indiana Downs taking all of Indiana's flat racing and by extension extending their grass season. Advance deposit wagering (ADW) remains forbidden from Illinois residents, although legislation to reinstate it (and have slots at tracks) has passed the state Senate.
Picks and Ponderings will be covering the Arlington Park meet all summer long, so watch this space (and Twitter) for more.