The palatial grandstand wasn't all that was new when Arlington Park reopened in 1989 as Arlington International Racecourse. Horses raced over a new nine-furlong main surface and a single, one-mile turf course with movable rails that replaced the old two-course setup.
Through the mid-1990s, the Arlington dirt track, which had been modeled on the Santa Anita strip, played favorites. The clay-based surface was particularly kind to front-runners. As 4-year-olds in 1991, closers Unbridled and Summer Squall, comebacking in Arlington allowance races, were both hard-pressed to run down obviously outclassed front-running foes.
The bias played out day after day, particularly in 2-year-old dashes early in the meeting. Horses who ran off and hid at 4 1/2 and five furlongs were frequently drubbed by their early victims when the distances stretched out later in the summer. Even an inordinate number of stakes and topnotch allowance races run out of Arlington's seven-furlong and mile chute were won in wire-to-wire fashion.
As frequently as 2000, when the track reopened after two dark years, horsemen referred to Arlington as a front-running track. Then a subtle change crept up, and the bias began to even out. One theory held that maintenance crews realized the soil composition that was so right for Southern California's sun-baked tracks was less than ideal in the more humid, windier, cooler Midwest.
As Arlington prepares to host its first Breeders' Cup, the main track most closely resembles Churchill Downs, the flagship track in the company that owns Arlington. The surface seems much sandier, which helps it to hold up better on rainy days.While every racetrack has days when speed, closing, inside or outside biases inexplicably creep in, Arlington has become known as a track where the best horse most often wins, regardless of running style or post position.
Unlike many other turf courses, most notably Gulfstream and Hollywood parks, Arlington's grass course gives no special advantage to come-from-behinders. In fact, turf runners who enjoy the most success at Arlington are typically those who keep within four lengths at the first call. While the turns are wider and more sweeping than many other North American courses, keeping traffic problems to a minimum, rarely do you see grass winners who come from the clouds in the final quarter mile.
Let's see how the specifics of Arlington might affect the outcome of each of Saturday's eight Breeders' Cup races:
* The Sprint: There's a long run into the turn for Arlington's six-furlong races, so even if a full gate of 14 face the starter, it's hard to imagine that outside posts will be too much of a disadvantage, particularly for runners who don't need the lead. Posts four through six have won more than their share of sprint races at Arlington this meeting, though, so the inner half-with the exceptions of posts one and two-would probably be the preferred spots. With the usual preponderance of blazers in this year's Sprint, a closer such as Swept Overboard or Kona Gold might enjoy a tactical edge.
* The Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies: Back in 1985, these races were run at one mile at Aqueduct, which like Arlington is a nine-furlong track with a mile chute and no practical way to use the normal 1 1/16th-mile distance because of the short run into the clubhouse turn. This year, however, the Breeders' Cup chose to lengthen these two races to 1 1/8 miles, requiring almost the entire field to compete at an untested distance. Horses from the outer half of the gate do have a tendency to get hung wide in the first turn at this distance, which should particularly affect the oversubscribed Juvenile but also the 12-horse Juvenile Fillies field. Juveniles who do their best running on the front end would be well served to draw the inside posts here, or face losing several lengths within the first quarter mile.
* The Distaff: Like the two Juvenile races, this race is being contested at the shortest practical two-turn distance of 1 1/8 miles (although Arlington does card some "about" 1 1/16th-mile races that are less than 70 yards shorter than the nine-furlong distance). But with just eight entries, outside posts should be at little or no disadvantage, particularly in a field with a preponderance of stalkers and closers.
* The Classic: The American classic distance of 10 furlongs is perfect for Arlington's configuration. Kentucky Derby watchers will notice that the gate is placed almost identically to the spot from which the Derby starts, with nearly a full quarter-mile run into the first turn of the two-turn race. Barring any brain cramps by the riders, this should be the most true test of the afternoon.
* The Mile: The first of the two turns here comes up almost immediately, so some strategic race riding is going to be required no matter what the post. With a full field of 14 expected, it's hard to imagine that the outcome won't be affected by racing luck and post position. The four inside posts will have a real advantage in that the jockeys will be able to ride their race without altering the horse's racing style to accommodate the starting position.
* The Turf: This three-turn, 12-furlong race starts a bit too close for comfort to the far turn, although the added distance will give most of the field time to relax before getting on the engine. A field of nine tops is expected, so unless a horse gets rank, there's no need to panic about post or running style here. Few horses take a noticeable dislike to Arlington's turf course, minimizing any perceived home-court advantage for Falcon Flight here or Beat Hollow and Forbidden Apple in the Mile.
* The Filly & Mare Turf: Since a 1 3/8ths-mile turf race would begin a third of the way into the far turn, a new distance was required here. Arlington suggested the 1 3/16ths-mile distance used for the Beverly D Stakes, but the Breeders' Cup opted for the mile-and-a-quarter configuration used for the Arlington Million. That means horses will start on a small rise at the farthest point in the stretch, with a long run into the first of two turns. There were 13 pre-entries for this race, and it's always seemed like the horses in the outer half of the starting gate must run farther than those closer to the rail, although Arlington officials insist that this is just an optical illusion.