California has the horses,
but needs help from state

Jul 18, 2006 1:50 AM

Racing in California isn’t like one of those Adam Sandler movies. It can only get kicked in the groin so many times before it clutches its gut and collapses.

As it is, the once-grand sport does have more redeeming social values. That’s not saying much, considering the opposition.

Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows recently have been sold, creating serious speculation that racing would soon end at each track. Venues such as Los Alamitos, Fairplex Park and others would pick up the existing dates.

The California Horse Racing Board has mandated that synthetic surfaces be installed on the main tracks (Hollywood, Del Mar, Santa Anita, Bay Meadows and Golden Gate) by the end of next year in order to be granted racing dates. Hollywood’s transition already is underway and expected to be completed in time for its Nov. 1 reopening.

To date, California racing has fought a losing battle with Sacramento and Indian gaming in an attempt to have slot machines legalized. Slot machines would boost purse money and allow California to stay competitive with racing states currently benefitting from the one-armed bandits.

According to a release from the California Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association, Rick Baedeker, senior vice president for governmental affairs at Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows, told the Los Angeles Times that a newly proposed law to permit 13,000 video gaming machines at seven California tracks will be "a potential solution to our problems."

A bill introduced (on June 21) by Assemblyman Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) would allow 1,850 machines at Santa Anita, Hollywood, Del Mar, Golden Gate, Bay Meadows and Fairplex. Current state law permits use of these machines, which mimic betting on historical races, according to Baedeker and other racetrack executives. Only Indian reservations can legally operate Las Vegas-style slot machines. Horsemen would be entitled to 30 percent of the machines’ revenue under the proposed legislation.

Greg Gilchrist has devoted nearly three decades to thoroughbred racing in California, primarily at his home base in the Bay Area. The 58-year-old trainer of 2005 Eclipse Award-winning sprinter Lost In The Fog is one of the state’s most popular horsemen, a straight shooter with a refreshingly candid yet tactful read on what he thinks ails California racing.

"Regarding Northern California, it’s pretty easy to see that racing is not very healthy up here," Gilchrist said. "We’re not in a very good situation, but it’s not like there aren’t a lot of good horses here. Look at Jerry (Hollendorfer, perennial Northern California training champion). He goes to Hollywood Park with Hystericalady and Somethinaboutlaura and wins the Grade II Hollywood Oaks and the Grade II A Gleam Handicap. He won the Grade II Churchill Downs Handicap with Tricky Trevor on Derby day. I have Lost In the Fog, and Art Sherman has Carthage, who beat us up here, and Silent Lure, who won the Grade I Triple Bend at Hollywood. There are a lot of good horses in the Bay Area. Simply put, we’re getting no help at state level."

Gilchrist has had no first-hand experience on synthetic surfaces, but feels the CHRB could have been more restrained in its decision.

"I would be the wrong guy to ask (about running on it)," Gilchrist said. "I have no experience with it except for what I’ve heard, but I don’t think there’s enough data in on synthetic surfaces yet to change every (major) race track in California. I don’t think we know enough about it to draw those kind of conclusions.

"Had it been up to me, I wouldn’t have placed the burden all on one association," he continued. "I would have selected one track to use it and had each association share equally in the cost. That way, one race track wouldn’t take all the (financial) risk."

Despite the preponderance of gloom and doom, Gilchrist firmly believes in the power and grace of the thoroughbred along with the tradition and excitement of the sport.

"It’s not that people don’t like horse racing," he said. "It’s as good as it ever was. Obviously, there’s a lot more competition in the world today than there was 40 years ago. But horse racing shouldn’t lose its popularity. Perhaps it could be presented in a more constructive manner, but we should not be in the situation we’re in now.

"Even without slots, I think we still are on a competitive (purse) level with states that have them, but how long that will continue, especially in Northern California, remains to be seen," he said. "We keep going in the Bay Area now because we’re robbing money from our stakes program to support our claiming races. Another concern is infighting within our own industry.

"Some 200 Northern California members of the TOC (Thoroughbred Owners of California) wanted to start their own organization because they felt they weren’t getting proper representation," he continued. "It seems there are a lot of people with self interests who aren’t working towards the same goals. Maybe we need a shakeup with our leaders, I don’t know. What I do know is, the way we’re going is the wrong direction. Right now I think racing in California is just in a slow fade. But I believe it can all be remedied very quickly if we get help from the right places."

The homestretch

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