View mixed on future of racing in California

Dec 20, 2005 12:41 AM

Trying to find an encouraging word these days about the state of racing in general and California in particular is like trying to discover "America’s Next Top Model" shopping at a 99-Cent Store, or so it would seem.

Consider this: horsemen in the Golden State are threatening to seek greener pastures if the major Southern California venues don’t get a Polytrack pronto; Hollywood Park may soon go the way of Disco; the live fan base is diminishing quicker than the use of public pay phones; the horse population is thinner than the waist on a Las Vegas showgirl; the scandalized New York Racing Association has a tin cup in its hand; and the discombobulated Jockeys’ Guild doesn’t know where its next insurance premium payment is coming from. Racing’s future would appear dim.

But hold your horses, says John Sadler.

"The realistic view is that California is a great place to race," said the 49-year-old trainer, a native of Long Beach. "We have great trainers and great jockeys and great horses. You see that when California horses run so well in other parts of the country. We have some issues here, but no more than anyplace else. To think the grass is greener somewhere else is just not true. I think we’re going to have a good strong year in California in 2006."

Although he has never won a title in his 25 years as a trainer, Sadler is one of the most successful and consistent conditioners in California. The coming year should be no different.

"We had a very good year in 2005, with about $3.7 million in purse earnings," Sadler said. "We’re looking strong for next year. We have some nice horses. We All Love Aleyna is going to be very tough in the Sunshine Millions (Jan. 28). That’s one of the things we’re setting our sights on, but we’ve got a good bunch a horses and a lot of them are ready to go."

On the absence of turf racing during Hollywood Park’s 27-day meet that ended Monday, Sadler stated the expected.

"Santa Anita is going to be the beneficiary," he said. "There will be a lot of grass horses ready to run when Santa Anita starts (on Dec. 26). If there’s good weather and not much rain, there will be really good grass racing with big fields."

Sadler is among the majority of horsemen in favor of Polytrack, but he dismissed the common excuse from out-of-town trainers who claim they don’t race in California because West Coast track surfaces pose a greater risk of injury than their home tracks.

"If we get Polytrack I think it will be great, and I think it’s going to happen," Sadler said. "The timetable is more in question than if it’s going to happen. I’ve never run any horses on it, but I think I ran one at Remington, which has a synthetic track but not Polytrack. I’ve heard good reports on it from Turfway, so I think everybody’s ready to give it a try."

Everybody but horsemen already running over it in other parts of the country, that is.

"East-Coasters will somehow say our Polytrack is different from theirs and they won’t come out here," Sadler said with a smile.

There are two sides to every story and one trainer who wasn’t smiling about the future was another California native, Bill Spawr, who is nearing his 30th campaign.

"The last six weeks to two months I’ve had three different owners quit the game," said Spawr, who was 66 on Dec. 13. "They got out. The cost just became too great, and I had some owners who actually were winning, and one guy who was making money, but he just got tired of the bulls —. Races don’t go, purses go down, expenses go up. It’s a bad combination and he just got tired of it."

Spawr has directed a profitable operation over the past three decades. His barn consists mostly of claiming horses but he was winning at a 21 percent clip this year with 55 victories from 255 starts. In 2004, he won 64 races, with purse earnings of more than $1.8 million. But it may not be enough.

"I really believe that unless something happens to turn things around in the next three or four years the game as we know it is over," Spawr said. "Down the road we could wind up running at Los Alamitos with 10 or 11 races on a weekend, six thoroughbreds and five quarters, something like that. But the way things are now, it doesn’t make any sense anymore."

The Homestretch:

There should be fewer if any controversial rulings from the stewards at Santa Anita this meet with the appointment of established veterans George Slender, Tom Ward and newcomer Scott Chaney, a former assistant to trainer Darrell Vienna.

”¡ Bill Christine, a two-time Eclipse Award winner, has accepted a buyout package from the budget-conscious Los Angeles Times and surrendered his role as racing’s "beat" writer, a position he held since 1982. "But I’m not using the ”˜R’ word," said the 67-year-old Christine, referring to retirement. "I still want to do something."

”¡ Look for two well-regarded 2-year-olds at Santa Anita on opening day: Point of Impact from the Bob Baffert barn and Cindago from Sadler’s stable. Point of Impact is a $750,000 son of 2001 Horse of the Year Point Given’s first crop.

”¡ Steve Knapp, coming off a breakthrough Oak Tree meet where he won his first training title, expects to continue his winning ways at Santa Anita. "I’ve got quite a few turf horses," said Knapp, who turned 49 on Dec. 18 and has about 50 horses overall in his active stable. "We rested about 15 getting ready for Santa Anita because they needed a break. I expect to have a good meet. I have a lot of horses ready to run."

”¡ In a cost-cutting move, Santa Anita’s replay show will not be shown on over-the-air TV, only on its Magna-owned HRTV, the track’s in-house network. Hollywood and Del Mar are expected to follow suit.

”¡ Are you like me? Do you wait with a palpitating heart for ESPN2’s crawl of women’s basketball scores on games such as Mobile-McNeese State and UL Lafayette-Savannah State?