California Trainers Face Late Scratch Penalty

In the face of dwindling fields, Hollywood Park won approval from the California Horse Racing Board to penalize trainers for late scratches.

On a 6-1 vote at a meeting held Thursday at Golden Gate Fields, the CHRB authorized Hollywood Park to double from five to 10 days the length of time a trainer must wait to enter a horse again if the declaration comes after the designated scratch deadline. The action came over the objections of horse owners and trainers, whose boards unanimously opposed the move.

The experiment is in effect for the coming spring/summer meet at the Inglewood, Calif. track. This is not a new policy at Hollywood Park, which had received permission from CHRB executive director Roy Wood Jr. to implement it at its short fall meet in 2002. But Hollywood president Rick Baedeker told the board he wanted to see if the success encountered at that meet – late scratches were down by about 30 percent, 121 to 84, during the 35 days – would hold up over the long haul.

Baedeker and officials from other tracks argued that some trainers cite false medical reasons to remove their horses when they face what they feel are unfavorable racing conditions, contributing to the problem of short fields plaguing California racing. Horses withdrawn from races for medical reasons must wait at least five days before being entered again.

"You are pulling out a guillotine when an aspirin will do," said Ed Halpern, executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers. He argued that trainers already know that they shouldn't scratch a horse unless there is a good reason to do so, such as illness or injury. He said the vast majority of trainers scratch only in legitimate circumstances, not merely to avoid a difficult spot or a bad post. But he conceded there may be few who bend the rules.

"It's like flooding a building to get rid of the rats," he said. "You might accomplish your purpose, but you'll also lose a lot of tenants and do a lot of structural damage in the process. I don't think that 10 days is enough to get those who are abusing the rules to stop."

Jim Ghidella, representing the Thoroughbred Owners of California, agreed.

"All of this assumes that late scratches are all fraudulent," he said. "Any number of reasons can cause a scratch. Jerry Hollendorfer told me that the management in Chicago (at Arlington), if it happens enough, comes down to your barn – without the big Italian guy – and tells you not to do it anymore. Effective management will go a long way to curing this."

However, Baedeker, said he had not received a single complaint about the policy from trainers during the fall. He noted that the New York Racing Association has a 14-day rule for re-entering scratched horses which is successful.

CHRB vice chairman John Harris cast the lone dissenting vote.