06/15/2010 11:00PM

Hollywood hopes to avoid date reduction


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - After canceling Thursday's races because of insufficient entries, Hollywood Park officials were guardedly optimistic Wednesday that they will get through the final month of the spring-summer meeting without losing another day of live racing.

Thursday's cancellation was the second day of scheduled racing lost in the last month because of a circuit-wide horse shortage. The Wednesday, May 24 program also was canceled.

The meeting ends July 18. With Thursday's cancellation, there are only four days of live racing this week. There are five days of racing scheduled from June 23-27 and July 1-5, and then four-day weeks for July 8-11 and 15-18.

Asked whether the track would be able to fill races on those dates, vice president and general manager Eual Wyatt Jr. said, "I only have hope.

"We tried to cut some days in the beginning and the end, thinking it would help in the middle, but it didn't work," Wyatt said. "We knew it would be tough. We thought we cut enough but maybe we didn't."

The track scheduled two four-day weeks in late April and early May in an effort to deal with an anticipated shortage of race-ready horses. Even with the cancellation of two scheduled days of racing in recent weeks, field sizes are comparable to last year. Through Sunday, the track averaged 7.86 runners per race compared with 7.95 during the same period last year. For the entire 2009 spring-summer meeting, the track averaged 7.94 runners per race.

In 2009, Hollywood Park canceled one Thursday program in April because of insufficient entries and later amended its weekly racing schedule from mid-May until the end of the meeting in July, eliminating racing on the final nine Wednesdays.

Friday's eight-race program has drawn 72 horses, but three of those runners are on also-eligible lists. Wednesday's program was not as robust. There were 53 horses entered, but late scratches as of Wednesday morning had reduced that list to a maximum of 49 runners.

O'Neill takes shot with 'Thomas'

Doug O'Neill is defending his training title at Hollywood Park this summer in a decidedly unglamorous fashion.

Through Sunday, O'Neill had 20 wins, two more than Mike Mitchell and four more than John Sadler. But O'Neill has only one stakes win during that span, Southern Fireball in the Manhattan Beach Stakes on May 30.

O'Neill, 42, has won 23 training titles in his career. He will be after his most lucrative stakes win of the year when the outsider Thomas Baines starts in Saturday's $100,000 Affirmed Handicap over 1 1/16 miles on the main track.

Thomas Baines, who finished third in the California Derby at Golden Gate Fields in January but was only seventh in the Santa Anita Derby in April, was second in his most recent start, an optional claimer over 6 1/2 furlongs on May 29. A gelding, Thomas Baines was eligible to be claimed for $80,000 that day, but there were no takers.

In the Grade 3 Affirmed, O'Neill admits that he and owner Steve Altman are taking a chance.

"Why not?" O'Neill said. "He tries hard. We'll give him another shot at making him a stakes horse."

The Affirmed is a prep for the $200,000 Swaps Stakes over 1 1/8 miles on July 17. Thomas Baines will need a strong race to justify an appearance in the Swaps.

O'Neill has 60 horses in Southern California and 25 based on the East Coast. His California stable is approximately half the size it was about three or four years ago, before the recession and before he decided to diversify to tracks such as Colonial Downs and Philadelphia Park. He also has had runners in recent weeks at Charles Town, Delaware Park, Mountaineer Park, and Penn National.

On Saturday at Charles Town, O'Neill starts Working Capital in the $400,000 Red Legend Stakes.

O'Neill said his California stable has fewer cheap claimers than in past seasons

"With the lower-level horses out here, it's hard to justify the business model," he said. "It's hard to make a living with a lower-level claimer in California. The costs are too high. I try to put that off with partnerships. You can spread the losses among friends, but it's difficult."

Still, the stable lacks a nationally prominent runner such as Lava Man, who won seven Grade 1 races in the last decade, or Thor's Echo, who won the 2006 Breeders' Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs. Southern Fireball's win was only the stable's second stakes win of the year, and first in California.

"I'm happy with the way the meeting is going," he said. "I've got some young horses and I think one of them could be a stakes winner."

That horse is Just Imagine, a 2-year-old colt by Unbridled's Song who is expected to make his career debut at this meeting, O'Neill said.