The landscape for Thoroughbred racing in the Golden State continued to shift June 19 when the California Horse Racing Board gave approval for the Los Angeles County Fair to move its three-week meet to Los Alamitos Race Course after 75 years of racing at the Pomona fairgrounds.
The move, by a unanimous vote during the commission's meeting at Los Alamitos, comes less than six months after the shuttering of Hollywood Park in Inglewood for development purposes. It will mean the end of racing at the Fairplex Park facility, as the LACF intends to remove the track and stabling area in the coming months and commit the property to other fair-related uses. As part of the agreement, LACF has committed to keep its facility open for training of up to 500 horses through Nov. 5.
The 11-day meet from Sept. 4-23 will move to Los Alamitos in Cypress, located in northern Orange County just across the L.A. county line about 35 miles from Pomona. Although the board's action Thursday addressed only the 2014 race calendar, the two tracks also have agreed to transfer the 2015 racing dates as well.
Senate Bill 721 authorizes the LACF to move its race meet to any other Thoroughbred racing jurisdiction in the state's southern zone. The measure has received final approval from the State Legislature and has been sent to Gov. Jerry Brown for his expected signature, officials said.
Los Alamitos, home of nighttime Quarter Horse racing, has taken significant steps into the Thoroughbred game as it attempts to partially fill the void left by the loss of Hollywood Park.
The track has enlarged its racing oval from five furlongs to nearly one mile and renovated the racing surface. It has enlarged its stabling area to handle 500 Thoroughbreds on the grounds, with barns for 200 more being constructed. The track has added a new infield spectator area, dozens of new HD television monitors, and several new bar and eating locations, according to Brad McKinzie, vice president of the Los Alamitos Racing Association. There will be no turf racing there.
Los Alamitos, which previously conducted fair racing from 1977 to 1991 for the Orange County Fair, has been granted a license to conduct an eight-day Thoroughbred meet July 3-13 and also is on the calendar for a three-week stand in December. It will now have eight weeks of Thoroughbred racing.
Fairplex Park was originally awarded 13 racing days for September, but Los Alamitos plans to run 11 days, dropping two Wednesdays. The program dates are Sept. 5-7, 11-14, and 18-21.
Financial terms of the agreement between Los Alamitos and LACF have not been disclosed. During a CHRB meeting in April, McKinzie told the board that Los Alamitos would bear the operational costs and that the fair would then be given an agreed upon share of the profits. Any additional revenue would go to Los Alamitos. He said Los Alamitos intends to fund purses at 85% of what Hollywood Park was paying out, a hefty level for a fair meet.
"If we don't do considerably better in handle than they did at Fairplex, we don't benefit and neither does Fairplex," he surmised in addressing the board Thursday.
"We think this transfer of dates is going to be good for the racing industry," McKinzie added. "The more racing we have, the more revenue we make, and the more we can commit to these types of improvements. The ultimate benefit is to the California horse racing industry."
In a letter to the board, LACF said that in spite of significant efforts to bolster on-track attendance at Fairplex, handle there had declined by 35% during the past five years even as fair attendance had grown by 5%. In 2013, it said handle was down by 12% from the previous year, and out-of-state handle also was off by 29% as the fair battled direct competition from Churchill Downs and Gulfstream Park for the first time.
In answer to direct questions from commissioners earlier, Jim Henwood, executive director for the LACF, said the move has the approval of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
Henwood earlier told the board that Fairplex could no longer afford to make the changes that would be necessary to make the facility an attraction to racing fans, forcing it to turn elsewhere. He estimated the cost to renovate Fairplex at about $40 million.
"By moving our dates to a new market on a one-mile track we think we can grow on the past success of our race meet," he said
The racing industry also has expressed support for the move, including the Thoroughbred Owners of California, Santa Anita Park, and the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.
Opposition expressed during the meeting came from a couple of small-time owners and breeders who said they will likely be displaced by the closure of Fairplex.
"I was disturbed to hear today that the race track and the barn area are going to be destroyed, apparently by December," said Brian Trela, who operates a small racing stable with his wife, trainer Rosemary Trela. "We have been at Fairplex for the past 15 years. It's a great facility with a great surface to train on. You're going to be losing that facility for the rest of eternity, it looks like."
He said they were denied stalls for their four horses in training at Santa Anita and Los Alamitos, and at Fairplex as well until the California Thoroughbred Trainers intervened on their behalf.
"In the long term, it's going to be bad for the racing industry because it's going to put people like us out of business." Trela said.