07/18/2002 11:00PM

Hopes on workmen's insurance

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - A top racing official on Friday expressed optimism that as many as two insurance companies could offer workmen's compensation policies to California trainers in the next month at lower rates than the government-backed program currently in place.

Ed Halpern, the executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, said formal proposals are expected to be presented by Tuesday or Wednesday. He declined to name the insurance companies involved in the negotiation, but said that if the arrangement is completed, policies could be in place by mid-August.

"It looks like at least one company, if not two, are saying, 'Let's go forward,' " Halpern said.

Trainers this year have been forced to tighten costs and increase day rates charged to owners to offset higher policy costs charged by the government-backed State Fund. Since March, State Fund has been the only provider of workmen's compensation insurance after the last remaining private company left the market in February.

The potential new policies would bring rates back to the 2001 level, which trainers have sought in recent months, Halpern said.

Halpern said it has been difficult to find private companies willing to offer workmen's compensation policies because of concerns over potential claims and a backlog of insurance policies that were renewed on July 1, the start of the fiscal year. With that date having passed, insurance providers have shown more interest, Halpern said.

"We've had a positive sign that have turned things from a possibility into a probability," Halpern said. "I was guarded and pessimistic because we'd been going through it for three months and hadn't seen any results."

Turf course renovation in works

Hollywood Park is planning to renovate its turf course in the coming months to provide a new surface when the fall meeting opens on Nov. 6.

The spring-summer meeting closes on Sunday, allowing renovation to start. The one-mile turf course has been re-sod periodically in recent years, but a more extensive project is planned this summer and fall.

"We will re-sod it completely," track president Rick Baedeker said. "They'll have a carpet to run on in the fall. We can't do any structural work, but we can go down and improve the existing soil."

Baedeker said additional renovation involving soil and sod replacement is scheduled for late summer of 2003. The project cannot be done in coming months since the track is open for main track training, which restricts construction time. Next year, Hollywood Park will be closed and Santa Anita will be open for summertime training.

"We'll take the whole thing out and put in a new course with proper drainage and all new material," Baedeker said.

Plans for an outer turf course around the existing main track are on hold. The costs of installing a turf course with a one-turn mile is $25 million and would include moving massive amounts of earth on the backstretch and relocations buildings such as the track kitchen, Baedeker said.

"That would be part of the long-term plan," Badeker said. "You can't just rubber stamp something like this."

Meet will end mixed

On-track figures for the spring-summer meeting will be mixed, Baedeker said, but the overall handle will show growth. Specifically, he said the meeting is up 8 percent in on-track attendance, down 4.5 percent in on-track handle, but up 4.5 percent in total handle.

Baedeker said the loss in on-track handle is made up by the $350,000 in average handle from telephone and Internet betting that did not exist last year.

"It's growing and I think it is yet to peak," he said. "I think Del Mar should average $400,000 plus. I firmly believe you have to look beyond the handle generated by account wagering. The television exposure has to be positive. It's simple common sense that the more people are seeing us the better it will be."

The gain in on-track attendance was higher than expected, but was not a complete surprise after the track replaced the poorly received Friday twilight programs from 2001 with night racing this year. Twilight programs were run last year while the state was in a power crisis.

"We have been up three out of four days, including days such as weekdays without carryovers," Baedeker said. "For a first time in awhile, we can expect to turn these numbers around and build on this."

Oceanside may be split

The Del Mar meeting opens on Wednesday with the restricted $100,000 Oceanside Stakes for 3-year-olds, a race likely to be divided into two divisions. There are 26 nominations for the one-mile turf race. Del Mar racing secretary Tom Robbins indicated that if 16 enter, the race will be divided.

The leading candidate is Mountain Rage, the winner of four turf stakes in the last year.

There are six stakes worth $100,000 or more in the first five days of the meeting, including two Grade 1 turf races over 1 1/8 miles. Trainer Bobby Frankel has top candidates in both races. In Saturday's John Mabee/Ramona Handicap, Frankel starts Surya, the winner of the Royal Heroine Stakes on July 6. In Sunday's Eddie Read Handicap, the Frankel-trained Beat Hollow, a winner of two Grade 1 races this year, will be a strong favorite.

Saturday's program also features the $200,000 Bing Crosby Breeders' Cup Handicap. Kona Gold will try for a third consecutive win in the six-furlong test.

Blanc hires Ball as agent

Jockey Brice Blanc has hired agent Tommy Ball to book mounts on his behalf, effective immediately. Blanc had been without an agent since early July when he ended an arrangement with Brad Pegram.

Blanc had a difficult Del Mar meeting last year. He suffered back and knee injuries in the second race on opening day when he was involved in a spill on the turf course.

* Mighty David, who ran the fastest six furlongs of the current spring-summer meeting, 1:08.27 in an allowance race on July 10, is pointing for the $150,000 Amsterdam Stakes for 3-year-olds over six furlongs at Saratoga on Aug. 3, trainer Christopher Paasch said.