California racing tarnished, but not permanently

Dec 7, 2004 3:32 AM

The state of racing in the Golden State is not very golden.

With 2004 fading faster than a cheap sprinter trying to stretch his speed over a route of ground, and with the New Year looming hard around the next turn, racing in California can be viewed as half-empty or half-full, depending on one’s point of view.

"It’s hard to say how things are headed," says John Sadler, a native Californian who was born in Long Beach and resides in Pasadena and has been one of the state’s most consistently successful trainers for a quarter of a century. In addition, Sadler is a member of the board of directors of the Thoroughbred Owners of Californian and as a mover and shaker in the state’s equine policies, has his pulse on current events.

"I see some good things out there," said the 48-year-old trainer of Our New Recruit, winner of the $2 million Golden Shaheen in Dubai last March. "It was important that (former steward) Ingrid Fermin was hired as executive director of the California Horse Racing Board. I think it will help the state. It should be a real beneficial move for California racing because she has a lot of experience, she knows the issues and she cares about the issues."

Sadler said another prudent personnel choice was Ron Charles, who recently was named executive director of Magna Entertainment Corporation in California. A native of Glendale, Charles has been a racing fan for more than 35 years and has owned horses for 25 years. He is a founding member of the TOC.

"Ron Charles going to Magna is a big plus," Sadler said. "He was with the TOC for a lot of years and he has a good understanding of what’s going on. So there are some things to be optimistic about."

With five and six-horse fields becoming the norm at both ends of the state, field size is a major concern, as is purse money. When the initiative to approve slot machines at California tracks was defeated in a virtual walkover by California voters on Nov. 2, the state took a potentially irrevocable hit. While the skyrocketing cost of workers’ compensation insurance had already forced smaller outfits to seek greener pastures, when the slots initiative was defeated, high profile trainers who already had designs on circuits where purses were driven up by slots solidified their resolve.

Mike Mitchell and Jeff Mullins, who direct two of Southern California’s most profitable operations and are a racing secretary’s dream, have committed to moving some of their string to other circuits. But Sadler, who resides only a few furlongs from Santa Anita, intends to stay put.

"I’m not going anywhere," he said resolutely. "I’m staying right here. My owners are based in California and they want to run in California."

Sadler was disappointed when the slots measure failed, but refuses to close the door on the issue.

"The slots initiative didn’t pass but I think it’s something we’ll still be looking at in order to move forward and it’s something we need," he said.

"But I don’t see any quick-fix. Long term I’d like to see the tracks partner-up with the Indians instead of fighting with them. I hope that’s our future. It doesn’t look good now but you can never say never. We missed the boat with the lottery people but maybe we can join in the Indian gaming."

Sadler’s response was firm when asked if horsemen were receiving an equitable slice of the pie from satellite wagering monies that are not co-mingled with on-track mutuel handle.

"No," he said. "But the problem has to be fixed nationally and to do that there are a lot of anti-trust issues that have to be worked out. I believe efforts are being made to correct them but it’s not going to happen real quickly. I think over time it will be made right."

While many trainers see jockeys as independent contractors who should be responsible for their own insurance premiums (in California riders are covered by workers’ comp), Sadler is supportive.

"I’m sympathetic to the jockeys’ cause always," said Sadler, a former show horse rider who began in the business at Santa Anita while in high school. "They’ve got to get that worked out although they’re very well insured in California through workers’ comp. Nationally they’ll get it worked out but they’ve got to straighten up their own organization (the Jockeys Guild). They have tremendous problems as to where the money’s gone and how it’s been handled. Once they fix their own organization the industry will come in as a whole and get it right for them."

The homestretch

Santa Anita has realigned its 3-year-old stakes races leading to the Santa Anita Derby on April 9, creating a more natural progression of distances.

"We now have different starting spots for horses that are ready," racing secretary Rick Hammerle said. "The trainers who aren’t quite sure how good their horses are can advance through the distances (starting with the San Miguel Stakes at six furlongs on Jan. 9 and ending with the San Felipe Stakes at 11/16 miles on March 19), plus the races are spaced better."

”¡ David Flores, Casey Lambert, Richard Migliore, Ray Sibille and Rick Wilson have been nominated for the 2005 George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, now in its 55th year, to be presented at Santa Anita next March. The prestigious prize memorializes the jockey known as "The Iceman" who died in a spill at Santa Anita in 1946.

”¡ It’s a case of good news, bad news on the lockout of National Hockey League players by the owners. The bad news is the NHL season is going, going, gone. The good news is, television ratings aren’t any lower than they were last season.