Full fields, reasonably good weather and a flock of new fan amenities greeted the opening of the Chicago-area racing season Friday at Sportsman's Park.
The combination drew on-track attendance of 5,281, up sharply from last year's opening-day crowd of 4,224, a Sportsman's spokesman said.
In its second year with a portable track inside the Chicago Motor Speedway, Sportsman's faces a challenge to regain on-track business lost during the past two years. In 1999, the track ran its meet next door at Hawthorne Race Course while the Speedway was under construction. Last year, while the revolutionary new racing surface drew rave reviews from horsemen, attendance and on-track wagering suffered.
Sportsman's pledged to fight back with improved sight lines, new handicapping areas, better access to the apron and other modifications. Still, the Illinois Racing Board cut back the track's meeting by two weeks.
Changes visible on opening day included an expanded infield tote board with running times for the races; new big-screen TVs and workstations in the handicapping areas, reduced glare in the interior portions of the third-floor "patio" area, a wooden ramp and "deck" providing access between the grandstand and the apron and rail, and plant-wide attention to décor and signage.
Is this a "make it or break it" year in the face of declining figures and pressure to merge Sportsman's and Hawthorne?
"We're going to make it. You can count on it," Sportsman's President Charles W. Bidwill III said during opening-day festivities. "We have more horses back there (barn area) than we've ever had before at this time of year. And we have full fields already right through Monday."
Several of Friday's races listed "also eligibles" and the fields featured stables coming from Hoosier Park, Turfway Park, Mountaineer Park, Beulah Park, Fair Grounds and Aqueduct as well as those that wintered over in Illinois.
Sportsman's got a head-start on this year's meeting with an aggressive fan-attraction program. The effort included a "frequent bettor" club with awards, two free brunch events to draw fans to the track for simulcasting, and outreach to fans through the OTB network.