11/19/2015 9:40PM

American Oaks may be moved to December; two Grade 1 Los Al stakes face uncertainty


The Grade 1 American Oaks at Santa Anita is likely to be run in December for the first time in 2016 to give the turf race for 3-year-old fillies a new identity, Santa Anita officials told the California Horse Racing Board at its monthly meeting on Thursday.

At the same meeting, Los Alamitos officials said the track would be unable to run two $300,000, Grade 1 races for 2-year-olds at its December 2016 meeting – the Starlet for fillies and the Futurity. Citing financial concerns, Los Alamitos officials urged Del Mar or Santa Anita to add the races to their autumn schedules next year.

The American Oaks, which had a purse of $400,250 this year, has been run from late May to early July since it began at Hollywood Park in 2002. The race was transferred to Santa Anita in 2014 after Hollywood Park closed at the end of 2013.

Rick Hammerle, Santa Anita’s vice president of racing, said the schedule change must be approved by the American Graded Stakes Committee. He emphasized that a December running of the American Oaks would move the race away from the $1 million Belmont Oaks on turf in July and could lure fillies who start in the Breeders’ Cup races at Santa Anita in November 2016. The American Oaks is run at 1 1/4 miles.

Hammerle said the proximity of the American Oaks to the Belmont Oaks may have cost the American Oaks a few runners despite being on opposite sides of the nation. Hammerle said he has reached out to trainers who told him they were in favor of the plan. He said the race would likely be run in the opening days of the 2016-17 winter-spring meeting.

“We think a schedule at the end of the year will be a good slot,” he told the racing board. “The race is not going away. We sat down with the TOC, and they asked the same question. There is no chance we will give this up.”

The Thoroughbred Owners of California is the state’s official representative for owners and must approve purse contracts and stakes schedules.

The future of the Starlet and Futurity, both run at 1 1/16 miles, are not as clear. Brad McKinzie, the general manager of the Los Alamitos Thoroughbred meetings, said the track can no longer afford to conduct the races. McKinzie said Los Alamitos will have only eight days of racing over two weeks in December 2016, which he said is an insufficient number of days to generate enough purse commissions from handle to fund the lucrative races.

A reduced stakes schedule is part of an ongoing trend at Los Alamitos, which began running brief Thoroughbred meetings in 2014 in place of Hollywood Park. For its December meeting this year, Los Alamitos is not running the $200,000 Bayakoa Stakes, a Grade 2 for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles, for financial reasons. The race was not picked up by other tracks.

On Thursday, it was not immediately clear what would happen to the Starlet or Futurity. Hammerle said in a phone interview in the afternoon that Santa Anita “would look at them with interest.” Del Mar officials expressed similar thoughts.

Timing could be an issue. The Futurity and Starlet have typically been run on the first three weekends of December, well away from the Breeders’ Cup earlier in the autumn. In 2016, Del Mar will run its autumn meeting through the first weekend of December before Los Alamitos begins its autumn meeting.

Racing board commissioner Madeline Auerbach, a prominent owner and breeder in California, said she was concerned about the number of stakes that have been dropped by California tracks in recent years. The Grade 2 John Henry Turf Championship on turf at Santa Anita was not run in September, although track officials have said the race will be conducted in 2016.

“I understand that we’ve played havoc on the circuit with dates,” Auerbach said at Thursday’s meeting. “I get it. We are dropping a lot of stakes. We are not retaining the stakes schedule we need to have our place in the industry.”

For 2016, Santa Anita will not run three Grade 3 stakes conducted this year – the Santa Barbara Handicap for fillies and mares on turf, the Los Angeles Stakes for sprinters, and the Last Tycoon Stakes on turf, according to documents filed with the racing board. The track cited the loss of racing dates in April 2016 as a reason. Los Alamitos will run a brief meeting in April next year.

Other stakes, such as the Strub Stakes and El Encino Stakes for 4-year-olds at Santa Anita, will not be part of the track’s winter-spring meeting. They were last run in 2011 and 2014. Prize money from the Strub was added to the San Antonio Stakes, which was worth $590,000 earlier this year.