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For some trainers, California horse racing at crossroads

Nov 25, 2008 5:10 PM

Golden Edge by Ed Golden |

Through death, personal choice or other means, 85 trainers have left the Southern California circuit in the past 12 years.

More recently, a sour economy excessively overplayed by a relentlessly biased media has further contributed to the depletion of horsemen who earned their keep in the Golden State.

During the current Hollywood Park meet, not one, but two purse cuts were enacted, the first due to a drop in business, the second because of an impasse between California’s four licensed advance deposit wagering providers (TVG, XpressBet, Youbet and Twinspires) and the Thoroughbred Owners of California. The dispute was resolved last Friday when an agreement was reached with all parties for one year.

Up to that point, Hollywood Park President Jack Liebau said it had cost horsemen $17,000 a day in purses, or an estimated $8.5 million during the first 17 days of its current 67-day meet that ends Dec. 21. Reportedly, a further reduction of five percent was due to be announced tomorrow (Nov. 26).

On a recent Friday night, only 2,416 people attended the races at Hollywood Park. While the live gate has dropped precipitously since the advent of satellite wagering some 20 years ago, it has rarely dipped below 3,000. Personnel such as ushers and mutuel clerks who had been working regularly on a daily basis are now on the outside looking in as Hollywood made budget cuts in an effort to cope with diminished income.

The track recently issued the following statement: "The Pick Six guarantee on Nov. 30 – closing day of the Turf Festival– was lowered to $500,000 from $750,000 due to the difficult economic times and the Advance Deposit Wagering stalemate, which has curtailed betting on Hollywood Park races from outside California through account wagering companies." A recent race for $12,500 claiming horses offered a purse of only $11,000.

Such is the reality of thoroughbred racing in Southern California as 2009 approaches.

Understandably, bettors and horsemen alike are feeling the pinch. Barring unforeseen veterinary expenses, it costs between $3,000 and $3,500 a month to maintain a horse at the race track, whether it’s racing or not. They still eat and defecate. A trainer’s "day rate," the amount he or she receives per horse, ranges from $80 to $100.

As one of the state’s most active trainers at the entry box put it: "Hollywood has had two purse cuts, so lots of guys want to wait until Santa Anita to run when purses will be bigger. But the major problem right now is nobody’s buying young horses or claiming horses, and it’s all because of the economy. One of my main owners plays the stock market, so he’s not buying horses right now. That means I’m actually down a few horses. Every trainer I talk to tells me a similar story, so it seems that everybody’s barn is down several horses.

"Usually, I have between 40 and 50 horses. I have 36 right now. First, purses were cut because of the economy. Then, they were cut 6½ percent because of the ADW squabble. Purses are horrible. It’s not a good thing. It will turn around eventually, because people like horse racing. I’ll be able to ride it out because I’ve got a bunch of young horses coming in at the end of the year and 13 on the farm now getting ready to come back in."

Added one of the state’s most recognizable trainers, who has been in the game for three decades: "It’s tougher than it’s ever been (to make ends meet). I just hope it improves. Hopefully, it will get better, but you have to win races to pay the bills. It’s always been that way, but it’s tougher now, that’s all."

Paul Aguirre, a college man who played JV basketball at UCLA, could have chosen any number of vocations, but his love of racing has kept him going for more than two decades, with a career record of more than 450 wins and nearly $12 million in purse earnings. His biggest victory came in 2004, when 2-year-old California-bred Texcess won the $1 million Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs in Louisiana.

Relatively, Aguirre (pronounced Ah-GEAR-ee) has enjoyed a modicum of success, but how much longer the 52-year-old El Segundo resident can stay afloat remains to be seen.

"To run your barn in Southern California, you need a rate of roughly $80 a day, and nobody wants to pay that to a smaller trainer anymore," Aguirre said. "If an owner has a high-quality horse, he’s going to pay that day rate to the bigger trainers. They don’t want to pay it to the little guy.

"When gas prices went up, our feed prices went up, as did prices from other vendors, but now that the prices have come down, nobody has rescinded their prices. They’re still way up there and it’s culminated in driving medium-quality horses out of California. Owners with quality horses may stay with the big trainer, but the medium guys, they left. Guys who were trying to make a little serious money with their horses went somewhere else.

"Some horsemen are waiting to run at Santa Anita, but guys like me can’t wait. It’s a bleak outlook and unless somebody in government starts to care about racing, it’s going to remain bleak, because the best horses are not going to stay in California. There are greener pastures elsewhere, so why would they stay here?"

"Whatever the reason, the little guy is getting pushed out of racing. That’s the most frustrating thing for me, because I can think of 20 different careers I can make a decent living at, but racing is what I love. But it’s coming to the point where it’s not feasible."

The homestretch

Joel Rosario, who became an overnight sensation under veteran agent Vince DeGregory, inexplicably has switched to Hollywood Park announcer Vic Stauffer. DeGregory who has been an agent for a host of Hall of Fame riders, obviously was disappointed with the decision of Rosario, who turns 23 next Jan. 14.

"I put in so much time with him and he lived with me for five months," DeGregory said. "He told me of the change after he won three races and he thanked me very much for helping him gets his visa after two years. I like the guy and think he’s a great rider. All I can do is wish him the best. I’m not ready to retire yet."