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Races and dates: Crunch time in California racing

Jul 2, 2002 8:25 AM

California presently is facing two crucial issues that could dramatically alter the future of racing in the Golden State: skyrocketing workmen’s compensation insurance premiums, and, after 64 historic seasons, the likely demise of Fairplex Park racing at the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona after this year.

Just yesterday, on July 1, for about two-thirds of California’s trainers, premiums were due to California State Fund of Sacramento, the state-supported insurance provider of workmen’s comp.

Last Wednesday, the California Horse Racing Board voted for Fairplex to race as scheduled from Sept. 13-29 at the five-eighths of a mile track, but said it would decide later whether Fairplex can lease those dates to Santa Anita or another major Southern California track after this season. That could mean the end of racing at the Los Angeles County Fair.

Many trainers first took a prohibitive financial hit on workmen’s comp last March 1, when in some instances, State Fund more than doubled premiums trainers must pay to insure their employees. Since the CHRB says California trainers must have workmen’s comp in order to race their horses, their backs are against the wall. For every $100 on a trainer’s payroll, he or she has to pay a percentage of that $100 towards workmen’s comp. In some instances, the percentage is nearly 50 percent.

Circumstances were so dire before the July 1 deadline, many trainers abruptly sought 11th-hour financial help from the tracks and the Thoroughbred Owners of California, and on Saturday morning, horsemen boycotted entries of Hollywood Park’s eight-race card on Wednesday (July 3) to draw focus to their plight. Only eight horses were entered.

But Sunday morning, trainers agreed to enter their horses with the hope that a new policy would resolve the crisis in the next 30 days.

A handful of trainers of smaller stables have already bit the dust due to the excessive rates, and others are contemplating unprecedented alternatives.

"It effects me tremendously," said Paul Aguirre, a UCLA graduate and one of the majority of trainers who expressed a similarly alarming theme.

"My rates are going up to 60 percent," Aguirre said. "I’ve been notified of at least a 25 percent increase and I hate to keep passing the cost along to the owners. We’re eliminating the owners of claiming horses, and if we’re not eliminating them, then we’re going to eliminate the trainer. I’ve never seen trainers trying to reduce their number of horses, but that’s happening now, and at a time when we can’t fill races as it is. This is the worst thing to happen. I’d say a trainer’s day rates would have to increase a minimum of 10 percent to defray insurance increases. Most rates now are about $80 a day (per horse).

"For somebody owning a $10,000 claimer, or even a $16,000 claimer, that’s prohibitive. An owner can’t make a profit. It’s almost impossible to make a profit now anyway. It just gets to the point of why would you want to continue?"

Jack Carava bit the bullet four months ago.

"My workmen’s comp was due in March and it went up a little more than 50 percent," Carava said. "I don’t know how the small stables can do it. I’m hoping the race tracks chip in or something positive happens, but it doesn’t appear that way. You have to pass the cost on to your owner, and it’s just one more thing to make an owner not want to be in California, and that’s unfortunate."

A bill headed for the California senate could offer temporary relief, but Carava was not optimistic.

"The problem with that," Carava said of the bill that would redirect purse money in the amount of a reported $5 million from the tracks’ marketing, vanning and stabling programs into a workmen’s comp fund, "is it would bring most trainers’ workmen’s comp down to kind of even with everybody else. Trainers with good records over the years are not going to be rewarded, because it doesn’t seem it would go down proportionately for trainers already on the low side for having clean records. It will help the trainers with the astronomically high rates. It doesn’t seem to be a real fair situation."

Ron Sticka trains only a handful of horses, but relatively speaking, he’d still be hurting.

"It’s going to effect me, because even the minimum deposit (to sign on with State Fund) is going to go up," said Sticka, who developed the late Best Pal for Golden Eagle Farm before the popular Cal-bred made his debut. "I don’t know what it’s going up to, but my deposit last year was $2,300 and this year it’s going to be close to $4,000. But it doesn’t effect me as bad because I don’t have as many employees or as many horses. To care for my five or six horses, there’s me, the groom and the exercise rider. If you have more help than you need, that’s where employees are going to be sliced from the payroll."

Craig Lewis, who holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Cal-Berkeley and who studied law at Pacific Coast College, numbers Larry The Legend and Cutlass Reality among his major stakes winners since becoming a trainer more than 20 years ago. He says everyone is in the same leaky boat.

"It effects all trainers," Lewis said. "I was effected in March when I had to pay a large deposit, and I’m awaiting with curiosity to see exactly what they’re going to do now. Nobody seems to know precisely how much rates are going to go up, and everybody’s waiting to see how disastrous this is going to be."

Of the pending bill, Lewis said: "I don’t know the application of it, or when it will be applied, if at all. But right now we’re in a perilous situation. It’s not good for the game, not good for the horse trainers, and not good for horse owners, because a lot of the cost is going to have to be absorbed by the owners, which is going to escalate the price of a trainer’s day rate."

Sentiment leaned towards continued racing at Fairplex.

"I’ve always hoped it would stay," Carava said. "It’s kind of traditional for me, not that I run a ton of horses there, but I think it’s a good break for some of the bigger riders, and it gives a chance to some of the low-profile barns and riders to make a little money. It gives everybody a break instead of just running, running, running at Hollywood and Santa Anita and adding on to the Oak Tree meet. There’s little concern for tradition, but that’s corporate America these days. I’ve always enjoyed running a few horses at Pomona."

"Racing at Pomona is fine with me," said Lewis, a three-time Fairplex training champion. "It’s a nice place and a fun place to race, and I’ve had a lot of good times there over the years. It’s a different atmosphere and I’m pleased with it, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world (if it ended). I’m really more interested in the availability of winning races and making money. Where you race doesn’t matter if you’ve got the right horses."

"I’m grateful we’re running this year, and I think it’s a mistake for racing to leave Pomona permanently," said Aguirre, who tied for the Fairplex training lead in 1998. "If it’s up to their management and they want to lease their dates, there’s nothing we can do about it, but I think it’s a mistake, because racing’s about tradition and history. Everytime you run at another venue, you open the game up to more fans. If we stick to Santa Anita and Hollywood all year, it’s just the same old crowd. I love Fairplex racing."

GOLDEN PICKS

DARE BUNNY ”” Indecisive ride cost this mare victory. Steadied near far turn, then beaten only a half-length. Can make amends vs. $12,500 claimers up to one mile.

KEEP ”˜EM ROLLING ”” P. Val had uncharacteristically tardy start for this Cliff Sise firster going 5½ furlongs against $32,000 maidens, came flying late for third. Prompt break should do it, but don’t expect 15-1 next time.

THE BUGGY WHIP ”” Got rolling too late at six furlongs for $40,000 when claimed by Mike Machowsky. Should show prompt dividend for new barn, especially with an additional furlong.