05/18/2009 12:00AM

Filling races a year-round challenge

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - While the racing season in Southern California remains a 12-month continuum, a summer cutback in racing days at Hollywood Park and Del Mar reveals a challenge that will spill into autumn as tracks struggle to provide a quality product.

Hollywood Park begins a reduced schedule this week brought on by a shortage of horses and inability to fill races. Wednesdays are out, and the track will race four days a week (Thursday through Sunday) after Memorial Day. Del Mar will race five days this summer, instead of its traditional six-day week. Fairplex Park will seek to drop one day from its 16-day fall meet.

Quality and purse structure were key reasons for the Hollywood reduction, according to track president Jack Liebau.

"We couldn't put a product on the track that was acceptable to our fan base, or did us proud or did anybody proud," Liebau said.

Furthermore, Hollywood faced a potentially harsh purse reduction.

"If we continued racing five days a week, it was highly likely that we would have been looking at a significant purse cut, and I mean significant," Liebau said.

The estimated overpayment was $700,000 to $1 million, according to Liebau, who believes the track can maintain current purse levels by dropping to four days. It is a sign of the times.

"This isn't a Hollywood Park problem," racing secretary Martin Panza said. "Everyone in the country is struggling. We didn't do this because we wanted to. We did it because this is the reality."

Average field size through Sunday was 7.5 starters per race, but 25 of the 166 races had fewer than six starters, with limited exotic wagering. Trifecta wagering is offered only with six or more interests. Panza said a trifecta adds $150,000 in handle to the race.

"In theory, you want every race to have eight [starters] because then you can offer every bet we have," Panza said. "As you add more pools, your handle goes up." Superfecta wagering is offered only with eight or more interests.

While the new schedule alleviates pressure for the Hollywood racing office, the challenge will be the same - increasing field size while maintaining quality. Panza said the cutback "probably means less maiden-25s and less $8,000 or $10,000 claimers."

Those horses will have ample opportunities to run, Panza said, but rather than split a 16-horse field of lower-class horses, "maybe it's not split and instead a two-other-than allowance will go."

Tracks everywhere are struggling to fill races during the economic slowdown.

"This is not happening just in California," Liebau said. "Churchill Downs" - which moves to a four-day calendar this week - "is in the same boat. It's happening everywhere. People don't have the discretionary income they used to have."

A sharp decline in claiming activity at Hollywood illustrates the ownership squeeze. The first three weeks of the 2008 spring meet, there were 49 claims for $1,396,500. The first three weeks of the 2009 meet, there have been only 16 claims for $398,000.

While a firm Southern California schedule is in place through closing day at Del Mar on Sept.o9, Panza is prepared for an extended challenge.

"Pomona, Oak Tree, even our fall meet, I would hate to be sitting there trying to run five days a week," he said.

The Los Angeles County Fair meet at Fairplex Park in Pomona begins Sept. 10, and Fairplex has sent a letter to the Thoroughbred Owners of California suggesting reduction from 16 days to 15.

According to Fairplex racing secretary Tom Knust, the Sept. 10-28 meet could include consecutive dark days on Monday and Tuesday, pending agreement with the TOC and California Horse Racing Board.

The six-week fall Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita begins Sept. 30. Executive vice president Sherwood Chillingworth said Oak Tree is aware of the downward trend, but "it's a little premature" for Oak Tree to shift from its traditional five-day schedule. Ultimately, it will depend on the number of available horses.

"We have talked about it, but decided to wait a while and see what happens to the inventory," Chillingworth said.

The winter meet at Santa Anita is partly immune to the field-size dilemma due to its placement on the calendar. Trainers based in Kentucky and New York much of the year (Todd Pletcher, Bobby Frankel, and Mark Casse) are becoming increasingly involved in winter racing in California.

Racing secretary Rick Hammerle said the current plan for Santa Anita is a standard five-day racing schedule, although that could be subject to the direction of a new owner if Magna Entertainment sells the track.

At Hollywood, simulcasting will be offered Wednesday. When live racing resumes Thursday, handicappers will find an interesting eight-race card with an average field size of 9.5. The smallest field is in the $60,000 El Segundo Stake, a five-furlong turf sprint moved from Wednesday. Three other upcoming stakes scheduled for Wednesdays have been moved to Thursdays - the Willard Proctor for 2-year-olds on June 4; the Cinderella Stakes for 2-year-old fillies on June 11; and the Robert Kerlan Handicap for turf sprinters on June 18.

For the remainder of the meet, Panza said, "I would be very happy if we could just hold our own. We're condensing, we're going from 43 [races a week] to 35 races. It takes a lot of the pressure off, and hopefully you're going to see larger fields and more competitive racing."