Fairplex Park, one of two locations under consideration as a replacement for Betfair Hollywood Park, is out of the running for now, says the president and chief executive officer of the Los Angeles County Fair facility.
"Right now, we don't see ourselves as a player in the racing industry's effort to find a replacement for Hollywood Park," said Jim Henwood, who heads the eastern Los Angeles County fairgrounds operation. "I'd suggest that Los Alamitos (Race Course) is the better alternative at this time."
His comments come as the industry is scrambling to find a racing and stabling replacement site for Hollywood Park. Track president Jack Liebau told the California Horse Racing Board Jan. 17 that Hollywood Park would run through the remainder of 2013 while leaving in doubt anything beyond that.
Prominent horseman Mike Pegram, chairman of the board of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, recently told The Blood-Horse that he believes that once Hollywood completes its fall racing season shortly before Christmas, that will be end of the line for the 75-year-old race track. Pegram expressed disappointment over Henwood's position, but at the same time wasn't surprised.
"Jim Henwood has been a big part of the conversation so far and has been very forthcoming about what he can and cannot do with Fairplex," Pegram said.
Hollywood, owned by Bay Meadows Land Co., has been approved for a massive commercial and residential development by the city of Inglewood on the 238-acre track grounds. But the build-out has been stalled since 2009 by a tight economy that has made borrowing the necessary funds difficult for a project that could cost as much as $2 billion.
Henwood's operation includes a five-furlong racetrack that runs a three-week summer fair meet and also is the site of the adjacent Barretts Equine Sales, the state's major Thoroughbred auction facility. He said he has had numerous discussions with former CHRB chairman Keith Brackpool, Pegram, Los Alamitos officials, and others, but the racing industry does not have the revenue required to turn Fairplex into a top-class racing venue, nor does the non-profit LACF.
"The racing industry in California is trying to work its way through a very difficult time, and we respect what it is doing," Henwood said. "But the industry is not really in a position to do anything internally."
A project plan for Fairplex developed in 2005 would have expanded the existing track to one mile with a turf course installed on the inside of the main track. A big expansion in stabling, environmental upgrades, and grandstand improvements came to a projected cost of about $35 million. The potential for a major racing venue exists there, Henwood said, but is not viable because of the cost and the limited number of racing dates that would be available to Fairplex.
Henwood said Fairplex would be better off continuing to run its summer dates in conjunction with the fair and concentrating on the development of Barretts. He said the track would continue to assist as an off-track stabling site.
Pegram, who concluded a couple of days of talks in Southern California during the week of Jan. 21, said that the industry is "moving as fast as we can" to secure an alternate site. He said Jan. 26 that he's encouraged that others are recognizing that "a sense of urgency" exists over the future of Southern California racing.
But for every step forward in the process, it seems a new set of questions arise. "There are a lot of moving parts," Pegram said simply.
Among the basic issues, Pegram notes, is which facility should be expanded, what is the expansion going to involve, who will pay for it, what a revamped racing schedule will look like, and, given the steep decline in racing revenue in the state, where the expansion money is going to come from.
"And those are just the high, hard ones," Pegram added grimly.
An expansion of Los Alamitos, Orange County's Quarter Horse track, has been revised since a $50 million proposal was dropped as too costly in 2005. The new plan was unveiled last fall and has the tentative endorsement of track owner Ed Allred.
Pegram said he hopes to have something to present to the CHRB at its next meeting Feb. 21 at Santa Anita Park.
"We want to do it as soon as possible. I'm hoping for next month, but I've been saying next month for awhile now," he said.
This is new ground for Southern California racing. In Northern California, the industry responded to the demolishment of Bay Meadows Race Course in 2008 by concentrating its racing and stabling at Golden Gate Fields with a minor increase in the utilization of facilities at Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton.
That's not feasible in Southern California. Santa Anita is too hot in the summer to be a year-round venue. A major extension of dates at Del Mar in northern San Diego County presents logistical issues for horsemen and would be difficult to sell to local government and fair officials concerned with the degradation of the sensitive oceanfront environment.
The Los Alamitos plan, expected to cost in the neighborhood of $10 million, would expand the five-furlong dirt track to one mile, add 700 stalls, and make some grandstand improvements. The current plan does not include the addition of a turf course.
Pegram estimates the region would need stabling for 2,800 to 3,000 horses, with about 1,800 supplied by Santa Anita. Any additional need could be met at Fairplex or perhaps San Luis Rey Downs in San Diego County.
Los Alamitos, which would remain a night-time Quarter Horse venue, would reportedly operate two boutique meets of about three weeks apiece before and after the Del Mar summer meet. The bulk of Hollywood's dates would likely be picked up by Santa Anita with some expansion at Del Mar also being discussed.