Santa is coming. Both Santa Claus, and Santa Anita, and Southern California horsemen are ready to receive bounty from both.
On Dec. 3, only 59 horses were entered at Hollywood Park, and with four late scratches, 55 ran, an average of less than seven a race. Horses in for an $8,000 claiming tag ran for an $8,000 purse in the eighth race. Despite quality fields during its Autumn Turf Festival, fewer than 3,000 people attended most weekdays, when Hollywood Park resembled a satellite facility with live racing.
"It’s no wonder we’re waiting for the bigger purses at Santa Anita," said one horseman. "At Hawthorne, $8,000 claimers were running for a purse of $11,000, and I know $8,000 Southern California horses could beat $8,000 Hawthorne horses, even though the ones in California are running for less money."
Blame it on business, or lack of same. Economic woes necessitated two purse cuts at Hollywood, producing a trickle-down effect. Lower purses resulted in smaller fields. Smaller fields reduced handle.
Purses will be higher when Santa Anita begins its four-month winter/spring meet on Dec. 26, but that doesn’t mean Santa Anita is immune. It has reduced overnight purses by some 10 percent, and decreased several stakes races as well. That’s one reason top Southern California trainer Jeff Mullins has shipped 20 horses to New Mexico’s Sunland Park, which benefits from purse boosts thanks to legalization of slot machines at race tracks in the state.
"I think the economy’s going to be rough for the next year," said Art Sherman, a training leader in Northern California for decades and a fixture in California since 1955 when he began as a jockey. Two years ago, Sherman moved the base of his operations to Southern California, leaving son Steve to direct proceedings in the Bay Area, where Art had ranked among the top five trainers at every major meet since 2000.
"I got a feeling racing is going to take its hit, too, until we can change things around, and I think the economy is going to affect our business as it has a lot of businesses," he added.
Sherman, who turns 72 next Feb. 17, enjoyed his best year in 2007 when his stable ranked sixth in the nation with a career-high 207 wins. He also had his richest season, his barn earning more than $4 million. Hopefully, he squirreled some of that away, because it’s been back to basics in 2008.
"This year has been one of my quietest years," Sherman said. "I don’t have the stock I used to when I was up north. I turned everything over to Steve, and he’s doing great. I’m proud of that, but I’ve sized down my barn. I’ve got about 20 head, which is a good number for me. I’ve got a few nice horses coming up and some young horses coming back into training. I’ve backed off a little after all the years I’ve put in, so now I don’t have to worry about having too many horses."
Sherman, like many of his peers, is looking forward to the 72nd campaign at storied Santa Anita.
"Business will be better at Santa Anita because purses are bigger and people are saving their horses to run there," Sherman said. "It’s a stronger meet because horses are of higher caliber and there are more stakes races. At the end of this Hollywood meet, it seems like we’re sizing down and there are short fields. The live gate is way down."
Short of a miracle, there are no easy solutions in the Golden State.
"We need to do something about our purses," said Sherman, whose family moved to California from Brooklyn when he was 7 years old, right after the war, in 1945. "Prices haven’t come down for horsemen in Southern California. Feed is high, blacksmiths are high. I even got after my hauler. He added a surcharge for gas when it was high, but now that it’s come down, he’s still charging the same price. Purses are being cut, but not costs. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t know how an owner can stay in business and make any money.
"Somehow, we need to increase purses and bring new people into the game, but it’s going to be awful tough, I think. Slots aren’t a reality. I don’t think they’ll ever have them in California (racing). The Indian lobby is way too strong. That’s going to be an uphill battle."
Still, Sherman isn’t about to retire or seek greener pastures. "I’ve got some young horses coming back off of layoffs, and bought a few young babies that will be 2-year-olds for next year, and I’m hoping one of my clients has one or two that can turn out OK," said Sherman, who, despite the gloom and doom, is looking to the future.
"I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else, because I love the game," he said. "I’ve been in it all my life, when it was at its peak until now. I rode for 23 years. I rode my first race at Hollywood Park in 1955. I’ve seen racing when it was at its best, and I’m not happy with where it is now. The big owners and trainers can survive, but the little guy is going to have a hard time trying to make it."
• Retired trainer Noble Threewitt and his wife, Beryl, both 97, are in an assisted living facility in Salinas, California. Noble, who took out his trainer’s license in 1931, retired on his birthday, Feb. 24, in 2007. He is suffering from dementia, while Beryl is incapacitated by arthritis.