Purses, not polytrack, will
save California’s racing

Jun 12, 2006 11:48 PM

Polytrack might save the lives of horses and riders in California, but the only thing that will salvage racing in the long run is more money.

That’s the opinion of Barry Abrams, the newest member of the Board of Directors of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, perhaps the most influential racing organization in the Golden State.

"Purses are going up in other parts of the country," the 52-year-old owner/breeder/trainer said. "We have to find a way to increase purses in California, or owners will continue to leave for greener pastures, especially owners in the claiming business. There are no two ways about it. Purses in Chicago, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Florida and Kentucky might not skyrocket, but they’re going to increase."

Prize money in the aforementioned venues is benefiting or soon will from slot machine revenue. California racing has never seen a nickel from the one-armed bandits, and likely never will, according to Abrams.

"I wouldn’t say never, but not in the foreseeable future," said the native of Minsk, Russia. "The Indians (Native Americans) are too strong. Why should they give away their money? The state gave them the right to do what they want, so why should they give their money away? They don’t need horse racing to help them.

"It’s a fact that owners are leaving California now and I expect it to continue. I looked at a Racing Form from 10 years ago and most of the owners from that time are no longer here. When you looked at the Form in the 50s, 60s and 70s, the same owners were still in California during that span. Now, they’re gone. Basically, we have all new owners.

"I think California not being competitive with other states in purse money will drive owners out. Polytrack might help, but it’s not going to help bring horsemen here from back East because they’re going to get Polytrack there, too, and they’re still going to have the same high purses they have now."

While Abrams has maintained his nucleus of owners, he says he’s "not a good example.

"I have all California-bred horses, and if you race Cal-breds in California, the purse incentive is so great you’re not going to race outside the state," he said. "But Cal-breds aren’t the horses that are going to keep racing going in California. We need horses that are bred in other states and they’re not going to come here, especially owners in the claiming business. Once the claiming business dies, we’re going to have mainly $6,000 claiming races, like they do in the Bay Area."

Abrams has gained sizable income from managing the breeding career of the prolific California-bred stallion, Unusual Heat. However, he says he his "reducing his stable because I have horses with nowhere to run. California is an island. The next (closest major) track is 2,000 miles away. I’ve got horses that need to run in a first condition allowance race. I’ve been waiting five weeks and the races don’t fill. Those type of horses aren’t here. If you’ve got an $80,000 or $100,000 claiming horse, you’ve got nowhere to run in California.

"Back East, there are six tracks in close proximity to run at, within 200 miles of each other," Abrams continued. "If you’re based in New York, you can run in Boston, Canada, Pennsylvania, you name it. You have options to run a horse at one of those tracks on only a two-hour drive. Not so in California. If you’re an owner and you’re stuck with a horse that can’t find a race, you’re still saddled with two months of training bills and the horse has to work eight times during that period. It could break down in workouts by the time the race finally goes."

The solution?

"If they don’t find a way to increase purses, there is no answer," Abrams said. "Nobody’s coming to California to run for the money they have here. This is the toughest racing in America."

THE HOMESTRETCH

”¡ Versatile Lava Man is the pro tem leader of the handicap division, but the Santa Anita Handicap and Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap winner will have to run out of a detention barn if he races before July 13. That’s because Wisdom Cat, a horse trained by Doug O’Neill, who also conditions Lava Man, exceeded the permitted total carbon dioxide level (milkshake) at Hollywood Park when finishing last at 48-1 in the seventh race on May 27. The detention barn edict starts June 14. In addition, O’Neill’s stable will be subject to special surveillance for an additional 15 days after the detention ban ends.

”¡ Abrams continues to successfully fight inoperable throat cancer. "I have a clean bill of health right now and I’ll have more tests in five months," Abrams said. "As long as the tests are clear for another four years, we’re in good shape."

”¡ Despite rumors to the contrary, Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux did not fire agent Jim Pegram. "Me and Kent were fine," said Pegram, who is back home in Southern California representing Eastern invader Norberto Arroyo Jr. after moving to New York in late April along with Desormeaux. "There were no problems with me and Kent. I just missed home." Desormeaux will continue to ride in New York and be represented by Mike Smith’s former agent, Mike Sellitto.

”¡ Ron Ellis expects undefeated 2004 male 2-year-old champion Declan’s Moon to resume his career at Del Mar.

”¡ Steve Knapp has never run horses on synthetic surfaces, but the 49-year-old trainer gives them his unqualified support. "We have to do something," Knapp said. "Too many horses are breaking down in California, much more so than anywhere else in the country."

”¡ Tip to World Cup bettors — play the under.