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Slot wars

Jun 29, 2004 6:06 AM

If California voters don’t approve slot machines at racetracks this November, it could mean "hasta la vista, baby" for racing as we know it in the Golden State.

A week ago Monday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed deals with five California Indian tribes, giving them the right to operate an unlimited number of slot machines. While initiatives that would permit race tracks and card rooms to run as many as 30,000 slot machines will be on the ballot, Schwarzenegger is on record as being against the two initiatives. Worse still, the Indians have the most powerful lobby this side of the NRA.

That’s bad news for racing, because whatever Arnold wants, Arnold gets. That’s been the case since he was swept into office last year in a rare recall election in which standing Gov. Gray Davis was given the boot. Schwarzenegger is still enjoying a honeymoon with California voters.

The existing deals with the Indians were signed in 1999 and effective for 20 years, with the tribes restricted to 2,000 slot machines. With the new compacts, the Indians would underwrite a $1 billion bond, giving California $100 million a year for the next 18 years until the bonds are paid off.

Faced with possible competition from racetracks and card rooms, the Indians decided to bite the bullet and kick in major bucks rather than risk slots rivals. Slot machines have been a boon to racing in other states. Revenue from slots has increased purse money as much as three-fold in Delaware and West Virginia, where racing was resurrected after having one foot in the grave. California horsemen now are concerned they will be unable to hold the line without slots.

"It looks like we’re dead," said California native Bill Spawr, 63, a prominent trainer in the Golden State for 25 years. "Slots were going to be our way out. Purses would double or triple if we got them. I don’t think so—I know so. We’d have full fields and maidens would be running for $100,000 (in purse money)."

Spawr said some of his clients have seen the handwriting on the wall.

"It’s already affected my stable because owners are moving horses where they have slots," he said. "I’ve lost some owners and some horses. It doesn’t make sense to keep a 10 to $20,000 (claiming) horse in California. You can run a $5,000 claimer at Philadelphia Park, where they have slots, for a $19,000 purse and the day rate for trainers is $35. Here it’s around $85. You can’t compete with that. And there’s no workers’ comp (premiums) to worry about, either."

Jim Equils and his wife, Marcia (pronounced Mar-SEE-ah) have been the leading owners in purse money earned at two recent Southern California meets, but they are the exception, owners who show a profit.

"We definitely need slots and I hope the initiative will pass," said Jim, who has been in racing about five years and has horses in Southern California with trainers Jack Carava and Steve Knapp, in the Bay Area with Sergio Ledezma and at Philadelphia Park with Randy Allen. "It costs owners about $3,000 to $3,500 per horse a month for basic care and maintenance, including vet fees," said Equils, who has 25 horses in training. "It’s really tough."

Jeff Mullins has been one of Southern California’s leading trainers since making it his headquarters several years ago. He is Hollywood Park’s current leader with a 30 percent winning average. One of his major clients is Richard Englander, a two-time Eclipse Award winner who led the nation in wins (405) and money won ($9,783,472) in 2001, just his third year in the game.

Despite owners with deep pockets, Mullins sees little light at the end of the tunnel.

"Having an owner like Richard Englander will help me," Mullins said, "but if we don’t get slots and the purses don’t increase, a lot of these horses will just start leaving. Believe me, my owners are exploring other options. They’re all looking elsewhere. The cost of operating in California is high and the purses aren’t going anywhere (increasing).

"Maybe we’d be better off if we put a race track on an Indian reservation."

Said one veteran trainer speaking about racing’s decision-makers: "Everything they’ve done is backwards. If the people who run racing were in another industry, they’d be working in the mail room."

The homestretch

Garrett Gomez, 36, whose recurring substance abuse problems have kept him from riding for more than 18 months during which his weight ballooned, is scheduled to appear before the Hollywood Park stewards on July 11 as he seeks reinstatement, according to his new agent, Jim Pegram.

...Halfbridled will race as a 4-year-old, Richard Mandella says. The Eclipse Award winner as best filly of 2003 is recuperating from a recently discovered injury to her hind legs which Mandella feels caused her to her tie up, forcing her to miss two starts this year. Mandella said Dubai World Cup winner Pleasantly Perfect will use the San Diego Handicap on Aug. 1 as a prep for the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 22. Pleasantly Perfect and Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones could meet in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Lone Star Park on Oct. 30, with Horse of the Year honors on the lin