Dave Harmon

CHRB Questions New Santa Anita Stakes Slate

Concerns expressed over missing Hollywood races as approval given to 40-day meet.

Santa Anita Park gained approval for its first spring/summer meet from the California Horse Racing Board Feb. 21 and presented a stakes schedule for the nine-week stand that looks quite a bit like Hollywood Park, which it is replacing.

The meet follows a brief break from the Arcadia track's winter/spring stand and will run for 40 days, April 25 through June 29. The schedule calls for racing on a Thursday through Sunday schedule with an additional card for Memorial Day, May 26. The regular first post will be 1 p.m. PDT, expect for twilight Friday programs, which will begin at 3 p.m. There will be an 11 a.m. first post for each of the Triple Crown cards.

Santa Anita will run 33 stakes, most of those taken over from Betfair Hollywood Park, which closed for racing in December and is expected to be demolished in 2014, then replaced by commercial and residential development.

Nineteen graded stakes are on the new Santa Anita schedule, including traditional grade I fixtures such as the Gamely May 26, the American Oaks May 31, the Vanity June 14, and the Triple Bend Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup June 28. The season concludes with the San Juan Capistrano Handicap (gr. IIT), a 1 3/4-mile grass race that is usually held to close the winter/spring meet in mid-April. It will apparently replace Hollywood's Sunset Handicap (gr. IIIT), a similar turf race that used to bring down the Hollywood season.

In all, Santa Anita unveiled a $5.7 million stakes program, an increase of $500,000 from Hollywood's last spring summer season. Most of the increase was required to maintain compliance with minimum purse standards raised for 2014 by the American Graded Stakes Committee, said Tom Ludt, vice president at Santa Anita.

Ludt said most of the corresponding stakes from Hollywood were retained, except for a pair of juvenile contests. He noted that the Santa Anita meet ends two weeks earlier than Hollywood's traditional closing. Racing in Southern California switches to Los Alamitos for a brief meet following Santa Anita. Some Hollywood stakes will appear on that schedule.

Commissioner Madeline Auerbach expressed displeasure with the possible loss of races, saying, "We can't afford to lose any stakes at all." She said Hollywood had dropped stakes in 2013 and those races would "be lost forever" if not returned to the schedule after a one-year hiatus.

"There are some missing stakes and I'm not happy to see that," Auerbach told Santa Anita officials. "One of the things I'm worried about is California losing graded stakes. I want promises we won't lose the stakes."

She added, "I am concerned about what's good for California racing. I want to see an annual schedule. I want you guys to get together and put out an annual schedule. I know that these races disappear into a black hole and we don't get them back. If we have a schedule that people around the country know we have…it will attract them. We have to get horses here."

Ludt agreed, but noted that some stakes on the existing schedule were in danger of being downgraded.

"We've bumped some purses to protect those," he said. "If they get downgraded we lose that quality of racing, so that's very important."

Joe Morris, president of the TOC, said three races were missing from last year's Hollywood schedule and were not added to Santa Anita's. He said the oversight was noticed too late to have them included on the Santa Anita stakes roster but an attempt would be made to find room for them later in the year, either at Los Alamitos or Del Mar.

The races he noted were the Inglewood Handicap (gr. IIIT), last contested in April 2012 at 1 1/8 miles on turf; the Lazaro Barrera Memorial Stakes (gr. III), run in May 2012 at seven furlongs on Cushion Track; and the Beverly Hills Handicap (gr. IIIT), in June 2012 at 1 1/4 miles on grass.

"We need to fully investigate those and get them back into the schedule," Morris said. "You have my assurance we won't lose them or we'll agree that we don’t need to run them."

The board approved the license application from the Los Angeles Turf Club contingent on officials providing an update on the status of the missing stakes.

Ludt said Santa Anita would spend $6 million on marketing the new meet, and noted that $15 million in improvements are in the process of being completed to enhance the on-track experience for patrons.

"Our whole focus is to drive the people back to the track," he said.

Chairman Chuck Winner and co-chair Bo Derek said they understood Santa Anita was doing all it could to promote the meet locally but were concerned funding was insufficient to the task.

Ludt said trecent promotional efforts seem to be paying off, however, noting that handle at the current meet is up by $9 million. He said overall wagering is up 4%, while on-track betting is 5% better than last year.

"It's been a challenge this year (with the additional scheduling) but we are looking at this longterm," Ludt said.

Elsewhere, the board approved industry plans to deduct 0.5% of handle from market access fees generated from advance deposit wagering to offset increased expenses in the Southern California stabling and vanning fund. The increased costs are due to the changes in stabling rotation brought about by the closure of Hollywood and the increased reliance on satellite sites Los Alamitos, Fairplex Park, and San Luis Rey Downs training facility.

Access market fees are funds remaining after payment for winning tickets on wagers and contractual compensation to the ADW companies. The redistribution, amounting to roughly $1.5 million, would come from purses and commissions and would not affect takeout, Morris said.

"This will will hold us even to where we are until such time that we can put forward a more permanent solution," he said.

The board also approved plans to redirect money for workers' compensation expenses after legislation covering such costs expired at the end of 2013.