By Debbie Arrington
Slated to close for development Dec. 22, Betfair Hollywood Park is planning to stay open for training through Jan. 31—and perhaps longer, the California Horse Racing Board was told Aug. 22.
But that handshake promise complicated an already perplexing situation: Where will California horsemen stable, train, and race their horses after Hollywood is gone?
Representatives have at least another month to hammer out that solution after the CHRB voted unanimously to postpone a decision until its Sept. 19 meeting at Fairplex Park.
"We've actually made progress," CHRB chairman David Israel said. "In the last month, we've met with everybody. We've had some setbacks and forward motion. (Commissioner) Chuck Winner and I engaged in a form of Del Mar shuttle diplomacy. Hollywood Park very graciously agreed to stay open for training at least through Jan. 31. That gives us more time to work through these matters."
Meeting Aug. 22 at Del Mar's simulcast wagering facility, the board pondered the latest twists in the road after Hollywood. More than 200 horsemen, owners, and fans packed the hearing.
"The longer Hollywood stays open as a (training) facility, the healthier the industry will be," Israel said.
But post-Hollywood decisions need to be made soon—with or without any more participation by the 75-year-old track, noted commissioners.
"When are we going to cut this cord?" wondered commissioner Steve Beneto. "They keep twisting our tail. Forget Hollywood Park. It's the tail wagging the dog."
"Keeping Hollywood Park open as a training facility is something we talked about for some time," countered commissioner Winner. "They said they would stay open a minimum of one month. It would help bridge a gap and be in the best interests of racing."
Adding to the complexity is a renewed proposal by Los Alamitos Race Course to extend its five-furlong main track to a full mile but with wider turns, making it more attractive to Thoroughbred trainers as a stabling facility. Located in Cypress in Orange County, Los Alamitos also would like to host two "boutique" Thoroughbred meets—two weeks in summer and three weeks in December—a mostly dark period on the post-Hollywood 2014 calendar.
In another wrinkle, Hollywood Park may act as licensee for at least some of those Los Alamitos racing dates, if any are approved by the CHRB. The 2014 racing calendar has already been conditionally approved with Santa Anita and Del Mar absorbing Hollywood's former spring/summer meet and fall/winter stand.
Both Santa Anita and Del Mar have tentatively agreed to give up one week of racing apiece to Los Alamitos, said Brad McKinzie, consultant to Los Alamitos.
"That cemented the deal," he said. "With the market in Orange County, we plan to run a first-class Thoroughbred meet."
Primarily a Quarter Horse track, Los Alamitos already runs mixed breed programs year round with both Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horse races. McKinzie said that the track expansion could be completed by Jan. 1.
Joe Morris, president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, said the TOC likes Los Alamitos as part of the mix.
"We've got to get Los Alamitos on the schedule," Morris said. "That's important to move forward."
Too many questions remained for consensus at this time, said the commissioners.
"We're not kicking the can, we're carrying the can down the road," said Winner, "and we don't want to mess it up."
Meanwhile, the board instructed all tracks and training facilities potentially involved to submit line item budgets detailing what services they would provide horsemen and at what price. That will help shape the final resolution, Israel said.
The board agreed on one point: Santa Anita and Del Mar will be needed for training year round.
"The best outcome in the long run is to have two primary training facilities—Santa Anita and Del Mar year round," Israel said.
But Del Mar, which operates on state-owned fairgrounds, has some issues that have yet to be worked out.
"Obviously, we feel that the expanded use of Del Mar is definitely in the best interests of Thoroughbred racing in California," said Del Mar Thoroughbred Club's Joe Harper, noting his board would be meeting next week. "It presents some problems for us; we have a landlord.
"We will try to push this along. It definitely is in the best interest of everyone and it's something we really want to do."
Expected to host racing more than seven months a year after Hollywood's closure, Santa Anita will need some down time in summer to renovate the track. That will squeeze available stable space.
Stable space will be available at Pomona's Fairplex Park, home of the Los Angeles County Fair, and at San Luis Rey Downs in north San Diego County. According to Scott Daruty of The Stronach Group, San Luis Rey Downs has already completed $2.5 million in improvements including the installation of a new safety rail and barn upgrades. In addition, the training center is building new housing for 100 grooms and hot walkers and installing a seven-furlong turf course.
"It's great to have Hollywood Park (a little longer), but we can't depend on that," said Jim Cassidy, president of California Thoroughbred Trainers. "We want to keep Santa Anita open during the summer. Most of the people I speak with still want to go to Fairplex."