04/23/2013 4:19PM

Hollywood Park begins what could be final spring meet

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Benoit & Associates
Hollywood Park will begin its spring meeting on Thursday.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – The 2013 spring meet begins Thursday at Betfair Hollywood Park, where picking winners is easier than predicting the future of the racetrack.

Despite increasing likelihood the 75th anniversary season will be the final spring at Hollywood, racing secretary Martin Panza does not look beyond the current calendar. Is this the last hurrah for Hollywood?

“It is not for me to say,” Panza said. “Until they tell me we’re closing, we keep going along. Certainly, there is a lot of chatter that way.”

The Hollywood property is slated for future development, and track officials have not stated their intention to conduct racing, or training, past the 2013 fall meet that begins in November. As for 2014, who knows?

“It would be sad if this place goes away,” trainer Doug O’Neill said.

“It’s such a beautiful facility with so much history. I hope and pray we somehow figure out a way to save it. I keep staying optimistic that some Lee Iacocca will come knocking on the door and save the day.”

Until then, the only certainty is a four-day-a-week spring meet that runs through July  14. After a long winter at speed-friendly Santa Anita, Hollywood offers a refreshing change for handicappers and horsemen. As racing secretary, Panza hears it first-hand.

“Trainers have told me, ‘I can’t run half my barn [at Santa Anita] . . . I have no shot on that track because of the bias,’ ” Panza said. “Now a guy can say, okay, we’re going to run, because my horse comes from off of it and he’s got a shot.”

It is true. Front-runners dominate on the Santa Anita dirt-sand surface, but horses with all running styles win on the Hollywood synthetic-surface, Cushion Track.

“Not having the bias, allows horses to run,” Panza said. “I’m not saying every once in a while we don’t get a bias here, but over the 49 days we are going to run, it’s a pretty fair track, and the fairest track in Southern California.”

With approximately 2,800 horses on the circuit to draw from, Panza has sufficient numbers to work with. “Am I going to have 10-horse fields all the way through? No. But I’ll make it through and have decent days.”

A handful of Southwest-based trainers with more than 80 horses combined are expected, including Molly Pearson, Sandi Gann, Dan McFarlane, and Kevin Eikleberry. Midwest-based Cody Autrey is expected to have as many as 20 horses from Oaklawn Park at the meet.

Stakes purses have fallen in recent years, but Grade 1 staples remain.

The $250,000 Gamely Stakes for turf females, including Lady of Shamrock, is May  27; Include Me Out and More Chocolate are among filly-mare candidates for the $250,000 Vanity on June 15; Game On Dude could aim for the $500,000 Hollywood Gold Cup on July 9; the $350,000 American Oaks for 3-year-old turf fillies is July 13.

Breeders’ Cup Win and You’re In races include two Grade 1’s on June 29 – the Shoemaker Mile for turf milers and the seven-furlong Triple Bend Handicap for the BC Dirt Mile. The Grade 2 A Gleam Handicap on July  13 leads into the BC Filly and Mare Sprint. Other highlights include the California Gold Rush for statebred runners this Saturday.

Hollywood eliminated night racing; standard first post is 1 p.m. The change gives Panza freedom to card 2-year-old maiden races on Fridays, including a statebred race for either gender this Friday. Previously, 2-year-olds did not run Fridays due to a reluctance to debut young horses under the lights.

Trainers Walther Solis and Mike Harrington will be active with 2-year-olds, including the second race Thursday, a 4 1/2-furlong race for statebred fillies. Harrington’s Yodelmesomemagic is a contender; Solis runs Debt Free Abby and Silver N Sassy.

“They both are live,” Solis said. “I’ve got a nice group of babies, better than the last couple years. This is one of the nicest years.

I’ve been looking forward to this meet.”

So have bettors, even if the $70,000 Harry Henson Stakes on Thursday came up weak and is led by a certain underlay. Peter Miller-trained Summer Exclusive will appreciate the class change from the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby.

This spring, change is good for horses, horsemen, and bettors. And racing secretary Panza will offer a diplomatic response to the question everyone asks – is this meet the final spring meet at Hollywood?

“We’ve been told we’re running this year, and we don’t know yet about next year,” Panza said. “I would imagine at the May board meeting, one way or another something will happen.”

The California Horse Racing Board meets May 23.