Eight-day race break worth wait

Dec 4, 2001 9:36 AM

It’s been a year since Tyler Baze has seen his parents, and three years since he’s seen his brother, Lloyd. Tyler has never seen Lloyd’s two kids.

Such is life on the race track, where coming by a week off is tougher than hitting the Pick Six on a $2 bet.

But for the first time in two decades, there will be an eight-day break in California racing after Dec. 17. That’s when Hollywood Park’s autumn meet ends. Santa Anita does not open for its 85-day winter/spring campaign until Dec. 26, creating the longest hiatus between those two meets since Hollywood began racing in the fall, in 1981.

Horsemen are people too, but virtually all have come to accept working a 24/7 schedule as routine. But beginning Dec. 18, those in Southern California will be afforded a benefit most American workers receive as a matter of course.

“I’ll be working horses until the morning of the 21st, then I’m going to Seattle and see my parents,” said the 19-year-old Baze, the nation’s Eclipse Award winner as top apprentice rider last year. “I haven’t seen them since last Christmas. Both my mom and dad just went through stomach surgery, so I’m going to hang out with them for a while. I’ll be seeing nieces and nephews that I haven’t even met. But before I visit my family, I plan to spend the first four days off working on a 47-year-old house I just bought in Monrovia. It needs quite a few things done to it.”

The eight-day holiday is unanimously welcomed by horsemen.

“I’ll be at the track every day in the mornings, but it will be nice to have a break for the horses to freshen up and also for the people who work there,” said trainer Wesley Ward, 33. “This is the first time in my memory we’ve ever had such a break, and it’s good. It finally gives horsemen a chance to spend a little time with their families, being this is a 12-month a year, seven-day a week business. I have a three-year-old boy and a three-month-old girl, and I can visit my parents and spend time with the family. That’s important. Everybody is grinding day-to-day and a break like this even gives a couple extra days’ rest for the horses, and with the short fields they’ve been having, that’s good.”

“In reality, what it means is just a few afternoons off in a row, so you can relax a bit more,” said trainer John Sadler, 45. “It’s like down time. Even though you’re working some half-days, some days full days, it’s still nice. I’m going to use the time to run out to some (breeding) farms and do some work there I normally wouldn’t get to.”

Initially, the California Horse Racing Board proposed a 19-day cut in the 2002 racing calendar, but ultimately reneged, reducing it by only two and approving a schedule that is essentially the same as the year before.

The following excerpt from the Thoroughbred Owners of California quarterly publication of October, 2001, explains:

“CHRB chairman Robert H. Tourtelot and Commissioner John Harris served on the CHRB dates committee and initially proposed cutting 19 dates””14 in Northern California and five in Southern California. Most of the reductions involved eliminating dates at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields that overlapped with the fairs and some six-day weeks in Southern California exclusive of Del Mar. The committee heard testimony from many industry groups, including the TOC, which opposed cutting the overlap in the North because of the loss of purse revenue and racing opportunities for owners. Tourtelot and Harris recommended to the full board that it reduce the Northern overlaps, but the board voted to reinstate them at its Sept. 21 meeting.”

It is such selfish and short-sighted philosophy that puzzles a saturated industry.

“We’ve got kind of a casino mentality,” Sadler said. “The tracks want to be open all the time. The problem is, these are not machines. They are horses and people and you’ve got to be able to turn them off for a while, because they just can’t keep going. We need a little break.”

Bob Hess Jr. took off the kid gloves.

“I’d be in favor of them eliminating the whole Hollywood meet,” the 36-year-old trainer said. “During these eight days, we’ll still do our morning work, but having two young boys, eight and 10, at least I’ll be able to play baseball with them in the afternoon, go to a movie, do whatever it takes to be a good dad. I’ll spend a lot more time with them and my wife. Even though it’s only eight days, it’s better than what it was.” His kids might be wise to put extra padding in their mitts. Hess played one year of college baseball at Stanford with future major leaguers Jack McDowell and Mike Aldrete. It will be pretty much business as usual for Scott McClellan, who represents Chris McCarron and Alex Solis and has been a successful agent for 30 years.

“We really don’t have much time off, because we’re lining up business for the whole meet at Santa Anita,” McClellan said. “Hollywood’s meet ends on a Monday and we don’t draw entries for opening day at Santa Anita until the Sunday before it opens. Actually, there are a few open days, so I might go to Vegas.”

Martin Pedroza, enjoying perhaps his best year ever, is on the fence.

“No plans yet,” said the 36-year-old jockey. “I don’t know if I’ll work horses in the mornings or not. I haven’t decided. I work all year long, so I should take a vacation.”

He should indeed. It might be his last opportunity. Eight-day breaks come along as often as Haley’s Comet. Next season, there are 569 racing days planned, 271 in Southern California and 298 in the Bay Area, with no reductions in the immediate future.

Meanwhile, the bean counters, ensconced in avarice, scratch their heads when they see five-horse fields.

THE HOMESTRETCH: News you can bet on: Patrick Valenzuela will be granted a license to ride again by the CHRB, possibly as early as next week. The oft-suspended jockey, 39, whose career has been plagued by substance abuse and suspensions, has not ridden since his most recent ban, issued on Feb. 11, 2000 by Santa Anita stewards for “engaging in the use of a dangerous drug””amphetamine.” The major reason the CHRB will approve re-licensing is the prohibitive cost of litigation fees it would incur should Valenzuela appeal a denial.