Horsemen Angered by Santa Anita Purse Cuts

Horsemen Angered by Santa Anita Purse Cuts
Photo: File
Californnia owner John Harris, said there is no easy solution to purse dilemma.
Southern California horsemen expressed anger and dismay over the decision to slice Santa Anita's overnight purses by 6.5% beginning Jan. 31 and to slash $450,000 from the stakes program.

Track general manager Chris McCarron blamed declines over last season of 7% in off-track wagering and a 17% loss in out-of-state handle at the month-old meeting for the decision, which was announced Jan. 28.

"It's a quarterly reminder of the terrible state our industry is in," said Ed Halpern, executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers. "It shows Gov. Schwarzenegger exactly what kind of shape our industry is in."

Last week, Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that received overwhelming support in the state legislature which would have increased the takeout on exotic wagers by 0.5% to help offset workers' compensation insurance costs, which many in the industry blame for racing's decline in the state.

John Harris, one of the state's most successful owners and breeders, as well as chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, expressed his frustration as well, but said there is no easy solution.

"It's disheartening to see purses go down because the expenses have gone up," Harris said. "Things are definitely going in the wrong direction and I don't know that there's any kind of a silver bullet solution. The California economy is doing pretty good right now and we really need to start showing gains if we intend to survive."

Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally was highly critical of the funding and promotion of events like the Sunshine Millions – which pitted Florida and California breds competing for $3.6 million in prize money – at the expense of the overnight races and the traditional stakes events.

"My opinion is that to see inferior horses running for that amount of money is wrong," McAnally said. "They could have had quality horses running for the purses they deserve to run for, not inferior horses running for unrealistic purses. Quality horses should run for quality purses."

Owner Richard Mulhall agreed with McAnally, expressing his concern over turning the track away from racing and toward a simple entertainment venue.

"I don't understand it all. It was like a three-ring circus," Mulhall said of the recent Sunshine Millions' hoopla, which featured popular live music, cheerleaders and a bikini contest, among other promotions. "It's getting to the point here with the rising costs, including workers' compensation, that people will either go out of business or move to other places. We can't keep going like this with expenses going up and purses going down. Santa Anita used to be the 'Great Race Place,' but it's not great anymore."

Darrell Vienna delivered his harshest criticism at track owner Magna Entertainment's decision to pull its signal from many out-of-state simulcast locations and home account wagering providers.

"The horse racing board needs to revisit the idea of track owners monopolizing the dissemination of the signal," Vienna said. "Some businesses have a problem with shooting themselves in the foot. Our problem is that our head's in the way."

Other trainers said the rug was pulled out from underneath them.

"I'd rather have had them start the meeting low and raised them if they could," Ben Cecil said. "It just looks better that way."

Carla Gaines admitted she and most other trainers are glum about the direction the meet, which lasts until April 18, has taken.

"I think (the purse cuts) are indicative of the whole scenario," Gaines said. "You don't want to have a morose attitude, but it's almost hard not to."

This is the third consecutive Southern California meet in which overnight purses were cut, following the Oak Tree Racing Association and Hollywood Park's fall meet.

The announcement of purse cuts at Santa Anita followed the replacement of Jack Liebau as president earlier in the week. Jack McDaniel, an entertainment executive and theme park builder who was responsible for the planning and construction of Sirona's, the track's new paddock restaurant and bar, has succeeded him.

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