California tracks say less race dates

May 19, 2009 5:00 PM
Golden Edge by Ed Golden |

Del Mar is going from six racing days a week to five when it starts its 70th meet July 22. A total of six days will be lopped from the popular seaside session, reducing it from 43 to 37. Attempts will be made to make up most of the difference by adding races on weekends and Labor Day.

Del Mar is following a trend. Golden Gate in the Bay Area already has gone from five to four racing days, and Churchill Downs is seeking to chop its racing week from five days to four.

Hollywood Park joined the parade of pared parimutuel plants last week when the California Horse Racing Board approved a four-day race week, Thursdays through Sunday, through June 14. That schedule will continue through the end of the meet on July 19. Only the formality of approval from the CHRB is required, at its next meeting on June 5. "Horse shortage" is the popular notion for the reduction, but that’s a one-dimensional viewpoint.

"I’ll quote a good friend of mine, (Northern California-based trainer) Steve Miyadi," said trainer Paul Aguirre, recently recovered from a burst appendix: ‘There is no horse shortage; there’s an owner shortage.’ I don’t know about the rest of the country, but there’s no incentive to own a race horse in California. There are horses out there to buy in sales, but you can’t find owners to buy them.

"Who’s going to own a horse when you have no tax benefits, no reason to breed them and no reason to race them? There are no owners to support the horses that you have out there, so I agree with Steve Miyadi; I think there’s an owner shortage.

"I guess in the long run, a shorter race week will benefit the horse player, who’s really the backbone of the industry. But it would hurt people working inside the industry, because there will be less money for them, working fewer days."

Art Sherman also sounded an alarm. "Everyone should pick up their head and look at what’s going on," the 72-year-old trainer and former jockey said. "The horse population is down, and the state of California is not even breeding that many horses anymore. I think four days worked really well in Northern California. With four racing days, I think all we’ll really lose is about four to five races a week. It will definitely be a plus to have more races with bigger fields on bigger days, when more people are at the track. Field size is important. When there are five-horse fields, no one is interested in betting, and that ruins the game.

"From a trainer’s standpoint, we still have to run our operation seven days a week, 24 hours a day. The people who lose out on a four-day race week are the track employees, who work on a per diem basis. They lose a day’s pay."

Bill Spawr, a fixture in California for more than 30 years, cites a horse shortage and the slow economy. "It’s a lack of horses," the 69-year-old trainer said. "It’s tough in California, because expenses are higher here. If they doubled the purse money, races would fill, and they could run six days a week. If they doubled the purse money, you couldn’t get a stall in California. It’s all about the money. Right now, it doesn’t make sense to own a horse. No matter how many days we race, the expenses don’t go down. In fact, they’ve steadily gone up. Something has to be done to supplement the purses, but slots are out. I don’t know what the answer is."

Barry Abrams is puzzled, too. "It’s terrible for an owner," the 55-year-old owner/trainer/breeder said. "Four days will doom major league racing in California, because the better horses will all leave town. Owners are struggling to pay bills, and obviously, with five days and smaller fields, they have a better chance of earning money. Four days might mean bigger fields, which is great for the bettors, but without the owners, there would be no bettors, and without horses, there would be nothing to bet on, so owners would leave that much faster.

"Racing four days means it will be a year or two before there are four and five-horse fields in Southern California with cheap races like they have now in Northern California, because the better horses are going to leave town.

"Owners have to pay for seven days a week of care, no matter what. There are no days off. The tracks want five days (of racing). It is my understanding that it’s only the TOC (Thoroughbred Owners of California) that recommended four days of racing. I don’t know where the TOC came up with that, because every owner I talked with said they want five days of racing.

"I don’t know where it’s going to end up. All I know is, owners are leaving very fast, because it’s economics. It’s too expensive to keep a horse, and their own businesses aren’t doing well. Owning horses is a hobby, and the last thing you want under these conditions is to put money into a hobby.

"(Trainers) Bob Hess. Jr., Vladimir Cerin and others have sent horses back east, and I plan to send some to Woodbine. Owners like Jim and Marcia Equils and Bob Bone, who were prominent, are now dormant. There are few options in California, which is an island when it comes to racing. The closest big track is Arlington Park (near Chicago). Back east, there are many tracks located within close shipping proximity if a trainer wants an alternative."

Leading trainer John Sadler, a California native and long-time proponent of racing in the Golden State, painted a brighter picture. "We’re really excited about Del Mar going to five days," he said. "That’s going to make it a nice meet. We just don’t have the inventory to run six days a week. Five days will be perfect at Del Mar … You hope Hollywood and Santa Anita do a good job with their product. We’ve been over-racing, so it wouldn’t hurt my business to cut back."

The homestretch

• In becoming the first filly to win the Preakness since Nelly Morse in 1924, Rachel Alexandra could generate more mainstream news for a maligned and malnourished racing industry than a potential Triple Crown winner, which would have been the case had Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird won the Preakness instead of finishing second to Rachel Alexandra.

If Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel is back on Mine That Bird for the Belmont Stakes on June 6, he could be the first rider in history to win all three Triple Crown races on two different horses. Borel is unbeaten on Rachel Alexandra in six tries, including her one-length victory in the Preakness. As of Sunday morning, it was undetermined whether Mike Smith, who rode Mine That Bird in the Preakness, would ride the gelding back in the Belmont, should Rachel Alexandra pass the mile and a half classic.

"We’ll let the dust settle and see what happens," said Smith’s agent, Brad Pegram. Meanwhile, Scott Blasi, assistant to Steve Asmussen, who trains Rachel Alexandra, said they were "keeping all our options open."

• If Musket Man finishes third in the Belmont, he would duplicate the feat of Mane Minister, who ran third in all three Triple Crown races in 1991.

• And this gem from ESPN boxing analyst Teddy Atlas: "One thing, he could use his head and slip inside it." Now that’s what I call a contortionist.

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Ed Golden