Racing at Santa Anita Park.

Racing at Santa Anita Park.

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Expanded Roles Seen for Santa Anita, Del Mar

With Fairplex Park pulling back on expansion plan, more racing likely for big tracks.

With Fairplex Park announcing it is pulling back on expanding its racetrack, Santa Anita Park and Del Mar are likely to host the 2014 Southern California racing circuit should Betfair Hollywood Park shut down.

Representatives of the two tracks presented a race-dates plan to the board of directors of the Thoroughbred Owners of California during a hastily called meeting April 11 at Santa Anita. TOC board chairman Mike Pegram said afterward the two sides are close to agreeing on a plan that calls for virtually all major Thoroughbred action to be held at those venues.

"It looks like they are very close, and we're hopeful something can be worked out," Pegram said.

Hollywood Park, approved for a massive commercial and residential development since July 2009 with the city of Inglewood, is committed to running through 2013. It has made no official announcement on its plans for next year, but racing industry representatives believe it is likely the 238-acre site is headed for demolition.

Fairplex president Jim Henwood, in a two-page letter to Pegram and the TOC board, said it would make its facility available for year-round training. But Fairplex has opted not to pursue plans to expand its five-furlong racing surface to three-quarters of a mile with an inner five-furlong turf course, the letter said..

The expansion, which would have cost close to $19 million, was stalled over a lack of consensus in securing a method to pay for it.

Pegram took the latest news as just another twist in the road during what has become an eight-year jouney to find a suitable alternative to racing and training at Hollywood Park.

"The big thing right now from the TOC's standpoint is that we will have a year-round place to stable, and we're very thankful for that," he said. "We'll take all that we can get."

Now known as Barretts Racing at Fairplex, the Pomona facility has 1,200 stalls without expanding its backstretch. When combined with Santa Anita's stable area for about 1,800 horses, it is sufficient to handle the current horse population in the region, Pegram believes.

Pegram said the revised dates plan being discussed would be good for the industry.

Santa Anita's major meet, which begins Dec. 26 and ordinarily runs to late April, would be extended through July 4. The calendar could then go dark for a period of 10 to 15 days before the annual Del Mar summer stand commences.

The northern San Diego County track would likely extend its meet an extra week during the summer. Fairplex would then hold its annual three-week meet duing September in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Fair.

More changes would be coming in the fall, when Hollywood Park usually hosts its autumn meet. As it has in recent years, Santa Anita would run from late September or early October through the first week in November. Del Mar would then add a fall meet for the balance of November.

There is a three-week gap to be filled in December, Pegram said, and it is possible the dates could be left open in 2014.

The California Horse Racing Board plans to begin its dates allocation hearings May 23 in Sacramento, about two to three months earlier than usual in anticipation of big changes in the Southern California circuit.

That could offer confirmation of Hollywood Park's plans for 2014. Track president Jack Liebau said owner Bay Meadows Land Co. would not pursue racing dates without committing to another year of racing.

"We'll have to fish or cut bait when the dates come up," he said.

The CHRB must approve all date requests.

Fairplex has been a reluctant partner in the expansion debate. It dropped out late last year over a proposal to enlarge its main track to one mile with a seven-furlong turf course due to funding concerns. Henwood said in January that Los Alamitos Race Course in Orange County was the more viable alternative.

But when horsemen objected to several aspects of the Los Alamitos plan, Fairplex returned to negotiations with a revised proposal for a smaller expansion. Again, funding was the central issue.

Fairplex had suggested a 30-year bond backed by racing purses, which raised concerns with the TOC over binding the purse account for such a long period. The resistance to the funding proposal may have been responsible for Fairplex's decision to not pursue track expansion at this time.

Pegram and others were also concerned about maintaining the current purse structure with Fairplex receiving a large block of dates. Under an earlier dates plan, Fairplex would have raced from mid-June though mid-July and perhaps in December as well.

He said Hollywood Park was paying out $350,000 to $400,000 a day in purses. Without an equivalent level, trainers and owners could leave the state.

"We have to maintain the purse stucture," Pegram said. "Without that, we're dead."

At least by staying with Santa Anita and Del Mar, horsemen are assured of keeping the Southern California purse structure intact even if they must endure periods where there will be no live racing, he said.

"Racing's a tough game," Pegram said. "You've got to race where the tracks offer the most money."