New Year brings hope to Cal racing

December 21, 2009 5:08 PM
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Every day is New Year’s for Barry Abrams. Come June, it will be five years since he was diagnosed with inoperable throat cancer, and, good Lord willing, he will receive a clean bill of health from the life-threatening disease.

Even before the illness, the 55-year-old trainer never needed a prompt to give an opinion, be it on the Lakers or the state of racing, where he has earned his keep since 1972, when he trained standardbreds, to 1987, when he moved to thoroughbreds. Today, he runs one of California’s most successful stables, thanks in large part to the stallion Unusual Heat, a rags-to-riches story in his own right.

With the countdown to 2010 days away and racing in California as solvent as the dollar, Abrams went into his best Nostradamus mode when asked about the future.

"A lot of changes have taken place since I started as a thoroughbred trainer," Abrams said. "Honestly, I’m worried about racing in California. By the time the Santa Anita meet is over in 2010, we’re going to have a very short supply of race horses, because of the economy."

He’s got that right. Two Egg McMuffins and a small coffee cost nearly eight bucks at a California McDonalds these days, thanks to a sales tax of nearly 10 percent. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is on record as saying the state’s "wallet is empty." He needs whatever revenue the tracks can generate, no matter how diminished.

"People just can’t afford to own horses, especially in California," Abrams said. "We’re an island. The next major track is basically in Chicago (Arlington Park), 2,000 miles away. Hollywood Park will ask for four days of racing next summer and you can’t blame them, because they’re going to be short of horses, what with Woodbine, Arlington and other major tracks opening and most likely offering bigger purses after Santa Anita closes in April.

"Owners want to at least break even, and with four days of racing and higher purses in other states thanks to slot machines, they’re not going to stay in California and we’ve already lost too many because of the economy. Barring a turnaround, that’s going to continue. Two, three years from now, I can foresee us having only enough horses to run on weekends, and those California-breds only, unless we get a purse infusion from ADW (advance deposit wagering), because it’s not going to come from slot machines.

"Kentucky probably is going to get slot machines next year. Charles Town (in West Virginia) has blackjack now and all kinds of card games, so small tracks like that are going to have more money for their purses. This winter we’re losing a lot of cheaper horses, $5,000 and $10,000 claimers, to Penn National and Philadelphia Park because the purses there are double. By the time the Santa Anita meet ends, we’re going to lose a lot of good horses, too.

"The bottom line is, we’re stuck…If you’re in New York, New Jersey, the Midwest or Kentucky, you can ship to another major racing venue with a three or four-hour drive. In California, where are we going to go? Golden Gate and Turf Paradise. That’s it."

Is there no light at the end of the tunnel?

"Our only chance of getting out is higher purses, and the only way to get them is through ADW," Abrams said. "As years go by, more people are going to bet at home. The whole world might be able to bet on our signal, and it will all go in one pool, so there will be a lot of money to share. That’s our only chance in California."

Despite a bleak picture, Abrams, born in Minsk, Russia, but a long-time resident of Arcadia, site of Santa Anita, is not about to abort the Golden State.

"I’m not leaving California, because I’ve got California-breds, and I envision in the near future that California-breds will be the only horses running for decent purse money, because of state-mandated incentive programs and breeders’ awards," Abrams said. "That’s all we have left, but I believe there will be racing in California forever."

Meanwhile, Unusual Heat stands tall. The prolific stallion turns 20 on Jan. 1 and still sires winners, with a stud fee of $20,000 "He’s feeling great and looks great," Abrams said. "He’s going one year at a time, and I’m going one day at a time. I will have my last five-year scan in June, and if everything is clean, I’ll have made it through one crisis. Hopefully, I won’t have to go through another one."