Reign of rain dampens racing in Golden State

Jan 11, 2005 6:00 AM

California was a great state to be in the last two weeks—if your name was Noah.

Whoever said it never rains in Southern California hasn’t been training horses in the Golden State the past fortnight. Trainers didn’t need a stopwatch. They needed oars.

More than 18 inches of rain pelted Santa Anita the first 11 days of the meet, exceeding any previous amount, according to track superintendent Steve Wood, who’s been tending the main track surface for 15 years and battled his share of West Coast versions of a noreaster. But nothing like this.

"We’ve never had this much rain and never this soon," Wood said. "Our rainy season usually is late January and February. And we’ve never had more than 14 inches for the entire meet."

You can kiss that record goodbye and, while you’re at it, bid adieu to any balanced training schedule. Thoroughbreds work every five to seven days when they’re in training. But not in mud. Serious trainers with serious horses will not risk injury to their valuable charges by working them on "off" tracks.

If someone spits on the track, a guy like Neil Drysdale won’t even bring a horse out of the stall. That’s why he didn’t run his $4.5 million Kentucky Derby dandy, Fusaichi Samurai, in the San Miguel Stakes last Sunday.

"With the track like it is and more rain forecast, it’s moot," Drysdale said when I asked him if the son of 2000 Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus would run in the San Miguel. Nor would the 57-year-old Hall of Fame trainer hazard a guess as to the colt’s next race. "We’ll just have to see how the weather plays out," said the Englishman, whose training philosophy is a little to the right of Attila the Hun. "With these bloody storms we’ll just have to sit tight and wait."

Bobby Frankel, who needed only three wins at the start of the meet to become the second trainer in history to win 800 races at Santa Anita (Charlie Whittingham has 869), had started only five horses through the first 12 days. He is not about to risk his blue blood stock in weather fit for Captain Ahab.

Last Friday, an all-time low 2,623 fans showed up on-track, some of them Frogmen. The rain got so heavy and the track so slick Sunday that Santa Anita, for the first time in 10 years, cancelled its program after one race.

Fortunately, some trainers are not as aligned with Drysdale and Frankel and their course of non-commitment, despite the spate of recent climate. As Patton once said, "If everyone is thinking alike then somebody isn’t thinking."

That didn’t prevent an unprecedented 381 recorded workouts at Santa Anita last Sunday, only hours before more rain was predicted and indeed did arrive before nightfall. There were an additional 275 workouts at Hollywood Park Sunday for a total of 656, or more than 30 percent of the 2,000 thoroughbreds stabled at the two tracks.

The weather caused fits as well for the racing office, an active abode which turns into a corner of chaos each morning that entries are taken for a day’s races. Not only does a wet surface curtail entries, rain virtually eliminates grass racing, cutting racing options even further. While "yielding" or "good" courses are accepted overseas, surfer dude trainers in California cast a jaundiced eye when it comes to running on a "bog." They want, like, um, "firm" courses. On Sunday, late scratches reduced the fifth race to three starters.

Horses must work to stay racing fit. Without jogging, galloping and breezing (officially working out), they lose their conditioning and are not prepared to race in optimum form. If they do race below their peak, it is known in the trade as "running a short horse," i.e. a horse that was short a workout. That is but one of an excess of excuses horsemen use to alibi away defeats. Others include bad ride, bad post, bad track, bad weight and bad weather. Rarely, however, is the term "bad training" included.

With raindrops still falling on their heads, the latter understandably might apply.

But it could be worse than being a horse trainer in Southern California these days.

You could own a car wash.

The homestretch

More News You Can Bet On: In last week’s edition of GamingToday we said bet that Pat Valenzuela would be cleared to ride, which he was by the California Horse Racing Board last Friday, three days after GT hit the streets. And in our Dec. 21-27 column we wrote that Valenzuela "was committed" to Ron Ebanks as his new agent, some three weeks before it became official.

While fellow riders and racing officials are in a snit over Valenzuela’s return, trainers are not, among them Vladimir Cerin. "I’m very happy he’s back," Cerin said. "I like P. Val. He’s a good guy and I’m glad he has another chance. I hope he makes the most of it."

Jockey License No. 264397/10-06 is back.

”¡ There’s good news, bad news on the conclusion of the college football season: the bad news is an exciting season is over on ABC-TV. The good news is "Jeopardy" is no longer preempted.

”¡ This just in: the final BCS rankings have Oklahoma as No. 1. (Just kidding, I think.)