Like dealing with a bad tooth, California racing representatives are coming to terms with the fact that Betfair Hollywood Park will eventually have to be replaced.
In the absence of a commitment from Hollywood's owner, the California Horse Racing Board, the Thoroughbred Owners of California announced it was holding "top level discussions" that could lead to a new training and racing location. Development plans for the 238-acre site remain stalled while the track's owner awaits a more favorable economic climate.
As far as track president Jack Liebau is concerned, pursuing a post-Hollywood Park plan is something that already should have been tackled.
"I think they've known since 2005 that Hollywood isn't always going to be available for racing," Hollywood's veteran track executive said Oct. 13. "It probably should have been done much earlier.
"The problem that they have," Liebau added, "is that the economics of racing are broken. And it's very hard to find new investment for it."
According to Lou Raffetto, president of the TOC, discussions he described as "all very preliminary" are in progress with Quarter Horse track Los Alamitos Race Course and Los Angeles County Fair site Fairplex Park on possible expansion plans.
"I think everyone knows the clock's ticking," Raffetto said. "We're having ongoing talks with Fairplex and Los Alamitos to see what can be done and what it will cost us."
"Both sides (tracks) are very positive toward expansion and are willing to work for it," he added. "We're talking about the possibilities for additional stabling and some racing opportunities."
Expansion talk is not new ground for either Los Alamitos, which is south of Hollywood Park in Orange County, or Fairplex, in Pomona on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County.
In 2005, Los Alamitos track owner Ed Allred and successful horse owner Mike Pegram, who is now the TOC board chairman, proposed a $50 million expansion as a possible replacement for Hollywood. In 2008, Fairplex proposed a plan with a $40 million price tag. Both projects stalled, however, over funding questions and a general lack of enthusiasm within the industry.
During the same period, Bay Meadows Land Company, which purchased Hollywood from Churchill Downs Inc., underwent a lengthy redevelopment process with the City of Inglewood that resulted in approval for a large-scale commercial and residential build-out. The entitlement process was completed in 2009 and since then, the track's owners have promised a six-month notice to state racing officials should it decide to pursue the $2 billion project. Start-up has been delayed by difficulty in acquiring financing during the recession, Liebau has acknowledged. But that situation could change quickly, he believes.
Increasingly, racing officials are realizing it's time to move on. Hollywood's future was the subject of considerable discussion over race dates for 2013 during the CHRB's monthly meeting in August at Del Mar. The CHRB granted Hollywood its traditional schedule but wants a commitment to the annual autumn meet from the track's owners by Jan. 1. Without such an assurance, the board may transfer those dates elsewhere.
"They (Hollywood) could tell us in April that they aren't going to race in the fall, and then where would be?" Raffetto asked.
Pegram and Allred are now discussing a more modest plan than their earlier one. It would entail an expansion of the stabling area by about 700 stalls, some grandstand upgrade, and replacement of its five-furlong track with roughly a one-mile oval. The price tag is about $10 million, Raffetto said.
Raffetto estimates that if Hollywood were to go away, stabling for 800 to 1,000 horses would be required in Southern California in addition to the 2,000 stalls available at Santa Anita Park. In addition, Santa Anita would likely pursue additional spring dates. Raffetto believes that Del Mar would be a good location for an expanded fall season in the future. He knows that will create cost and logistical problems for horsemen but is something that could be dealt with when the time comes.
Raffetto noted that one drawback is that there is hesitation to move forward on such changes so long as Hollywood is still plugging along. He said he has no preference between Los Alamitos or Fairplex as an alternate site once Hollywood is no longer available, and that the decision is likely to come down to which is more convenient for horsemen.
"I'm sure that whatever is decided, there won't be total agreement," Raffetto said.
CHRB chairman Keith Brackpool said a public hearing would be scheduled "in the near future" to discuss the expansion plans.