California Chrome after winning the 2016 Winter Challenge

California Chrome after winning the 2016 Winter Challenge

Benoit Photo

Los Alamitos Sees Gains During Winter Meet

All-sources handle is expected to be up 16% over 2015's comparable dates.

Los Alamitos Race Course executive Brad McKinzie was significantly upbeat after the last race of Cypress, Calif., racetrack's two-week meet Dec. 18, but even with almost entirely good news to report, he couldn't help but communicate concern with current and future challenges.

Although the final numbers aren't in yet, McKinzie reported an expected 16% increase over comparable 2015 dates in all-sources handle. That number was surely boosted by California Chrome 's presence in the Dec. 17 Winter Challenge, but even without the 2014 Horse of the Year, the track would have experienced gains. That can likely be attributed to increased field size, which went up to an average of 7.89, compared to 7.13 last year.

"The key to the meet was field sizes and competitive races," McKinzie said. "(Racing secretary) Bob Moreno—you have to give him all the credit. Filling these races with no turf course and to almost have eight starters a race is quite an accomplishment.

"This was really a serendipitous meet. We had everything fall our way, but even before Chrome day, after the first week of the meet, we were up 13%. We were up every day substantially over last winter and the only thing I can point my finger to is the field size and that we put on a better show than last year.

"California Chrome kicked us into a new stratosphere, as far as how the meet went, but we're going to wind up about 16% up. And who is up 16% these days?"

But on-track wagering continues to be a nagging issue.

"We're going to be up a little on-track, but it's easily the most frustrating part of this whole exercise," McKinzie said. "It's hard to break through into this new market. We had 5,000 people out to see California Chrome, and while that's great, boy, you would have thought more people would come out to see such a great horse."

California Chrome's romp in the Winter Challenge, his final start in California, was undoubtedly the highlight of the eight-day meeting. The son of Lucky Pulpit  won by 12 lengths in front of an adoring crowd, in one of the most important races in Los Alamitos' relatively short history since expanding its track to a mile to accommodate daytime Thoroughbreds in early 2014.

BALAN: California Chrome Gallops Home in 'Challenge'

"The day yesterday was twofold for me," McKinzie said. "Watching how the people reacted to that horse—chanting his name—for somebody who has been in horse racing all his life, that's heartwarming," McKinzie said. "But to see not more than 5,000 people is just a reminder of the challenges this business faces in developing a fan base."

As for the meet's leaders, Joe Talamo won his first jockey title since Santa Anita Park's fall meet in 2012. He won seven races to top the leaderboard, followed by Tyler Baze, who was victorious in six races.

Three tied for the training title, with four wins apiece—Bob Baffert, Peter Miller, and Mike Puype. Puype won two races on the closing-day card to pull into the tie, and Baffert won the meet's final race with Iliad to complete the trifecta. Iliad's maiden-breaking score also gave owner Kaleem Shah the outright owner's title, with three wins at the meet.