CHRB OKs Further Cuts in Hollywood Dates

Board agrees to eliminating final five Wednesdays of the spring/summer meet.

In a sign of how the tightening economy has affected tracks in the state, the California Horse Racing Board acquiesced to a request from Hollywood Park to eliminate the final five Wednesdays of the current spring/summer meet, which runs through July 19.

The board had earlier approved Hollywood Park's request to reduce its race week to four days by eliminating previously scheduled cards on May 20 and 28 and June 3 and 10. The latest action, by a 5-1 vote during the CHRB's meeting at Santa Anita June 4, also halts live racing at the Inglewood track on June 17 and 24 and July 1, 8 and 15. Racing will continue Thursdays through Sundays for the rest of the meeting.

During a 95-minute discussion on the issue, Jack Liebau, Hollywood's president, and Martin Panza, the track's vice president of racing, argued successfully that the meet's quality would suffer badly if five-day weeks were resumed.

Reducing schedules is not new to the CHRB this year. At its meeting in April, the board approved a reduction in dates for the Del Mar meet from the traditional six days per week to five. Liebau said that Hollywood's problems with filling races is in line with that decision and follows a difficult final couple of weeks at Santa Anita. He noted that Churchill Downs and other major tracks around the country have cut back racing days as well.

"Del Mar was a little ahead of the curve," Liebau said.

He added that since going to the shorter week, Hollywood's field size had improved to an average of 8.4, up from 7.5 in the opening weeks of the meet. With the larger fields, the average daily handle has also bounced back after dipping 24% earlier, Liebau said.

"Owners are cutting back; as they lose horses, they are not claiming or buying others to replace them," Panza explained. "We're not getting that natural replacement of horses."

He said that just 26 horses had been claimed at the current meet, a reduction from last year's corresponding meet of 66%.

Most classifications of racehorses are severely depleted, making it difficult to card races, Panza said. In some cases, such as the non-winners of three allowance fillies and mares grouping, they simply no longer exist.

"What happens when you can't fill those classifications, you have to fill cards with something," he noted. "Usually, that's maiden $25,000 (claiming horses). But you can't keep doing that or you'll run out of those, too.

"I don't want to lose races, but what's going to happen if we are forced to race five days is we'll probably wind up with four and five-horse fields."

Panza said the number of race-ready horses is probably around 1,600 -- about 400 below normal for this time of year at Hollywood and Santa Anita, where most of the region's starters are stabled. In addition, as trainers await the lucrative summer meet at Del Mar, the number of available horses traditionally declines in the final two weeks of Hollywood's meet, he noted.

“This is not just a California problem, it is a national problem,” Panza said.

CHRB chairman John Harris opposed the reduction while admitting that he was sensitive to Hollywood's position. He said he was concerned about the effect the reduction would have on handle at Golden Gate Fields and during the upcoming fair meets since they depend heavily on Southern California simulcasting.

“I guess I’m the lone voice in the wilderness,” Harris said. "But I don't quite understand the dynamics of what is different now than when we approved Hollywood's dates in March, when if anything, the economy was even tougher. I don't know why we didn't hear about this at that time."

Robert Hartman, general manager of Golden Gate, and Chris Korby, the executive director of the California Authority of Racing Fairs, echoed Harris' concerns. Two labor union spokesmen also complained that the reduction in hours will have a detrimental effect on employee hours and benefits.

Doug Kempt, representing Local 280 of the Service Employees International Union, estimated the loss at about $720,000 in lost benefits and wages to his 400 members, which include pari-mutuel clerks.

"Everybody's hurting. This industry is in peril, we know that," he said.

"I've got people calling me, saying 'I'm going to lose my house, I can't make my car payment, I can't feed my family.' Things like that," Kempt added.  

Hollywood's request was supported by the other Southern California tracks as well as the Thoroughbred Owners of California and the California Thoroughbred Trainers.

Cliff Goodrich, representing the Los Angeles County Fair meet, noted, "Fairplex will be coming to this board next month asking for a reduction in days (from its current 16). We are in desperate straits right now. This isn't an industry that has indigestion. We're on the verge of a massive coronary."

He said the industry, including the unions, must work together to get through the tough times so that "we have the best product that we can put on the racetrack. That has to be our first priority."