It’s fair to say that back in May few folks figured Arlington’s 2017 racing season, when it concluded in September, would be deemed successful.
Even after the meet’s end, it’s not easy understanding how things turned out the way they did. Despite fewer horses running than the year before, more money was bet on Arlington races during 2017 than in 2016 – appreciably more, and by all statistical measures.
Arlington ran a 71-day meet with 596 races and 4,309 starters for an average of 7.23 starters per race. The average number of starters per race fell 3.4% from last year, but gross handle was $141,265,505, an increase of 6.1% compared to 2016, while average daily handle of $1,989,655 was up 10%. Average handle per race, $237,022, was up 5.4%, and average handle per starter was up 8.6% to $32,784.
Handle was so much better than expected that Arlington in August tacked a series of $65,000-added overnight stakes onto the end of the season. Stakes races every Saturday during September gave horsemen a spot to race their more accomplished stock and bettors more meat on the bone of late-season race cards.
Just imagine what a summer at Arlington might look like with purses that equaled or exceeded those in adjacent states where casino or card-room revenue heavily subsidizes purse money generated from handle – and where “recapture,” a mechanism unique to Illinois, does not exist. Here in Chicago, it’s betting alone that produces all but a minute portion of tracks’ purse payments.
What wasn’t minute during Arlington 2017? The win totals posted by trainer Larry Rivelli and jockey Jose Valdivia Jr. Rivelli won 79 races, the most by a trainer during a meet in Arlington history despite Arlington’s compacted racing schedule.
Valdivia rode the majority of those Rivelli winners, but his services had much wider demand – he won 141 races during the meeting. Valdivia’s strike rate was 31.42%, unprecedented for a high-volume jockey in modern Arlington history.
Eight horses won as many as four or five races during the meet, and Rivelli trained four of them, including the only two five-time winners, Cadet Captain and Disorderly Conduct, both Illinois-breds. Rivelli came to train Cadet Captain basically as an afterthought late last year, and the gelding won race after race going two turns on turf and Polytrack over the summer. Disorderly Conduct raced six times and had a second-place finish to go along with his five victories.
Rivelli’s four-time winners were higher-class horses, Daddy’s Boo and Case Cracker, the latter Illinois-bred. All four of those high-volume winners were owned by meet leader Vince Foglia’s Patricia’s Hope LLC.
Another four-time meet winner was Sunset Gables, who had been trained through May by Richie Scherer. Scherer, a veteran horseman on the circuit, died in May after being afflicted several years with cancer. Also passing away during the Arlington meet were longtime trainer Jeff Lynn and racing official Steve Morgan. All were memorialized by stakes races this season.
Four-time winner Gorgeous George was claimed early in the meet by trainer Dee Poulos, who had a strong Arlington season with 10 winners. Black Angel won her four starts during the meet for trainer Manny Perez, who had a career-best 17 winners during the Arlington season. Trainer Ignacio Correas, stabling for the first time at Arlington, proved impactful from the start of the meet and wound up with 15 winners.
It was through Correas that jockey Jose Lopez came to Arlington from Tampa Bay Downs, and Lopez made a solid mark on the circuit, winning 25 races by meet’s end and going to Hawthorne with wind in his sails. Olaf Hernandez (17 winners), Pedro Cotto Jr. (14), and Carlos Ulloa (13 winner despite being injured a good chunk of the summer) were better known by Arlington horsemen and bettors at the end of the meeting than the start. The successful Australian jockey Blake Shinn rode during June and July and had really just found his stride when he went home.
Trainer Louie Roussel won the 1000th race of his training career in September, and in July, jockey Chris Emigh won his 1000th race at Arlington.
Illinois-bred star The Pizza Man was retired after failing to make an impact in the Arlington Million, a race he won two years ago, but other Illinois-breds came to prominence. Oak Brook, trained by Brian Williamson, finished second in the Grade 3 Arlington Handicap and was a close sixth in the Arlington Million, but was beaten by Illinois-bred Christian C. (trained by Wayne Catalano and one of the meet’s four-time winners) in a late-season allowance race. Illinois-bred Cammack, another older turf horse, beat multiple graded-stakes winner Kasaqui in the Les Ahrens Memorial closing weekend. Chris Block trains Cammack, and the Block-trained Prado’s Sweet Ride had a good second in the Grade 3 Modesty Handicap.
Illinois-bred Babybluesbdancing, trained by Terrel Gore, won two statebred-restricted races during the meet while shipping out of town for high placings against open stakes competition in Iowa, New Jersey, and Oklahoma. Illinois-bred Puntsville, trained by Michele Boyce, went to Canterbury to win the Hoist Her Flag Stakes in August, and was a two-time winner during the Arlington meeting. Puntsville’s little brother, Devileye, won races in August and September to run his career record to a perfect five for five.
It will be fun to see what young, promising horses like Devileye and Babybluesbdancing might do in 2018, and it is actually somewhat exciting to look forward to next season at Arlington after a surprisingly strong meeting this year.
Marcus Hersh, a writer for the Daily Racing Form, produces occasional feature stories for the ITHA.