Overdue cut in race dates raises debate

Jul 17, 2001 3:29 AM

At first glance, the California Horse Racing Board’s recent proposal to reduce the 2002 racing calendar by 19 days seems laudatory.

But 14 of the dates would be cut from Northern California, and only five from racing-inundated Southern California. Upon closer examination, thinking such a reduction would solve racing’s ills in the Golden State would be like trying to sop up the ocean with a sponge.

Despite the well-intentioned plan, the tracks in question are balking about any cuts, even though the CHRB’s goal is commendable, if not long overdue: to increase field size and attract more fans. But in the eyes of some, including erudite trainer Darrell Vienna, the CHRB is locking the barn door after the horse has been stolen.

“It’s too little, too late,” said Vienna, whose resume, in addition to training horses successfully for more than a quarter of century, lists him as an accomplished essayist and poet, with a degree in psychology from UCLA and a law degree from Loyola Law School. The 55-year-old trainer also is a former professional rodeo rider and horse show trainer.

“It’s reminiscent of these interest rate cuts from (Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan) Greenspan,” Vienna said. “They’re making these little dribbling cuts when they should have gone deep early. It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s too small and too late.”

As noted, the tracks are not taking the proposed cuts lying down. Del Mar, for one, is grumbling about the recommended elimination of a single day, from 43 to 42. It is asked to end its meet on a Monday. Traditionally, the meet ends on a Wednesday following a final dark Tuesday, a decision that defies logic in the name of greed.

“It (the proposed 19-day cut) must be a good plan because nobody likes it,” said CHRB commissioner John Harris, himself a prominent owner and breeder in California.

Vienna says pettiness must be set aside for the good of the whole.

“The people who are quibbling over losing this date or that date better look at the bigger picture,” he said. “Next year, they might save their day, but down the line, they won’t save their meet. Del Mar shouldn’t be concerned about losing one day, and I’m not singling out Del Mar. But none of these people should be worried about a day. They should be concerned about losing the business. Del Mar isn’t like some of the other race tracks, in which I feel the ownership is just passing through, interested in the short term and not the long term. But most of these other people who scream and wail, they’re not around. They’ve come lately and they’ll leave shortly. They’re not worrying about the economics. They’re worrying about who to keep happy.”

While the CHRB works in a spirit of cooperation with the tracks on racing dates, it is not required to do so. If push comes to shove, it can dictate the schedule as it sees fit.

“The horse racing board doesn’t need agreement (from the tracks),” Vienna confirmed. “It needs to stand up and just say, ”˜This is how it’s going to be.’ Ultimately, it’s not about making everybody happy. It’s about giving medicine to cure the disease, and that’s the Board’s responsibility and it needs to make the tough decision.

“The whole issue has been managed improperly by the track owners, by and large, and the CHRB has aided them in the mismanagement in the past. Let’s hope that this new board becomes more active in trying to cure the ills of the industry. They really have a mandate to do that.”

THE HOMESTRETCH: “We have some decent horses for Del Mar,” Vienna says. “The best one is the filly Above Perfection (who suffered her first loss after three victories when she finished a strong second to Xtra Heat in Belmont’s Grade I Prioress on July 4).” . . . Fortunately for Eduardo Inda, the 58-year-old trainer says 3-year-old filly Tamara Princess has many of the same traits as her full sister, recently retired Eclipse champion Riboletta. “Her action is similar to Riboletta’s, and she has a good mental attitude, too.” Tamara Princess made her debut at Hollywood Park on July 11, winning impressively by a comfortable length . . . Bob Baffert, who’s had a few good 2-year-olds in his time, says Officer is his best ever. “He’s the best Bertrando I’ve ever had,” Baffert said after the California-bred won his debut at Hollywood on July 6. “For that matter, at this stage of the game, he’s the best 2-year-old I’ve ever had.” The $700,000 Barretts March Sale purchase for The Thoroughbred Corp. is expected to make his next start July 25 in the $125,000 Graduation Stakes at Del Mar . . . Big Jag, the rags-to-riches California-bred gelding who won the $1 million Golden Shaheen in Dubai in 2000, has recovered from a life-threatening fracture he suffered after that race more than a year ago. “I spoke with the surgeon in Dubai and everything’s good,” said Big Jag’s trainer, Tim Pinfield. “He’s in good health, they’ve re-X-rayed the joint and it’s all knitted back together. There was no surgery involved. It was a nasty fracture of the (left) sesamoid, but all the fiber has sort of got back together. There was no cartilage damage. Hopefully, he’ll leave Dubai at the end of the month, go from there to England, spend the rest of the summer there, then return to the U.S. He’ll never race again, but he’ll be rideable and we plan to make him happy and comfortable. Everyone’s put a lot of time and effort into his recovery. They’ve been wonderful in Dubai.”