07/01/2014 1:04PM

Hovdey: Los Alamitos has pedigree for mixing breeds


Brad McKinzie, point man for the brave new racing adventure at Los Alamitos, was cracking wise about the mini-meets his track will be presenting this season, beginning Thursday with the eight-day Summer Thoroughbred Festival that runs all the way to July 13, better known as a week from Sunday.

“Two weeks we can handle,” McKinzie said. “It’s that middle week we’ll be running in December that will present the real challenge. You just hope you can keep up the enthusiasm.”

Since McKinzie said that, tongue firmly planted in his cheek, the Los Alamitos Racing Association has added another package of Thoroughbred dates in the Sept. 4-23 window formerly occupied by the L.A. County Fair. Led by its owner, Dr. Ed Allred, the track is stepping into some of the racing and training breach left by the closure of Hollywood Park as well as the end of live racing at Fairplex Park.

As a marriage of necessity between the Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred worlds, there have been compromises on both sides. Los Alamitos has already invested millions on an expanded racing surface and new barns, while Thoroughbred owners and trainers must make do without turf racing, and Quarter Horse cards will continue to run Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. But, in fact, the two worlds have been intermingling for decades, so there should be no real surprises.

The surprise – and hopefully a pleasant one – will be in the reaction of the local community to the novelty of daytime Thoroughbred sport. Heavily suburban Orange County has been squandered as a market for potential Thoroughbred fans for so long that the question lingers, has the opportunity passed?

“We really don’t have any idea how many people are going to show up,” McKinzie said. “Will it be five thousand? Fifteen thousand? We’re planning for a big number, and if we don’t get it, we’d still rather be overstaffed than understaffed. Dr. Allred hasn’t given us any choice to do otherwise.”

Regular customers, both ontrack and off, will be comforted to see most of the leading names associated with Santa Anita and Del Mar in action at Los Alamitos. Trainers Tom Proctor, Neil Drysdale, Doug O’Neill, Jerry Hollendorfer, Peter Miller, and Bruce Headley give the opening-day entries a familiar ring. And, with the exception of the traveling Gary Stevens, all the top riders from the circuit are present and accounted for, including Joe Talamo, Tyler Baze, Martin Garcia, and Edwin Maldonado, as well as veterans Mike Smith, Aaron Gryder, Corey Nakatani, and Martin Pedroza, who is making a comeback from a broken leg sustained this year.

They will be following in a brief but fascinating history. Los Alamitos ran a mixed-breed Orange County Fair meet in the late 1970s and through the 1980s that went well until its dates were torpedoed by an overlap with Del Mar. Many of the leading local Thoroughbred trainers braved the wilds of Katella Avenue to run third-rank stakes horses for decent money, including Charlie Whittingham, Bobby Frankel, and John Gosden, who took his memories of Los Alamitos with him when he returned to train in his native England in 1989.

“The first time I went to Los Alamitos was in 1978 with Albert Yank and Nelson Bunker Hunt,” Gosden said this week, fresh from his banner Royal Ascot meet. “We had a good time eating too much at our table, which was mostly about four servings of ice cream. I thought it was a nice track as long as you could rail like a barrel horse. Terry Lipham felt at home there on a Thoroughbred.”

You’ll still need a handy horse on the clubhouse turn in a distance race, but now that the Los Alamitos oval has been lengthened from five to eight furlongs, runners and riders will be faced with two long straightaways and a slight rightward kink on the backstretch to set up a final turn similar in radius to the other one-mile Southern California layouts.

Lipham, who won the 1983 Santa Anita Handicap for Gosden aboard champion Bates Motel, is one of many crossover personalities who made a successful transition from the Quarter Horse world of Los Alamitos to the wider Thoroughbred universe. The pioneers included Henry Moreno, who saddled his first winner at Los Alamitos and went on to train such outstanding Thoroughbreds as Sangue and Tizna, and Farrell Jones, who went from training Quarter Horses for original Los Alamitos owner Frank Vessels to become one of Southern California’s all-time leading Thoroughbred trainers.

Before winning a Breeders’ Cup race with California Flag, Brian Koriner earned his stripes training at Los Alamitos. And for all their glory at the highest levels of Thoroughbred racing, Hall of Famers D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert will never shake their back stories as top-ranked Quarter Horse trainers.

“When Bob left here in the early ‘90s to train Thoroughbreds full time, he swore he’d never be back, and I bet him he would,” said McKinzie, a longtime friend of Baffert’s. “So, now he’s running a horse here opening day, but he’ll be out of town. I think I should still collect.”

Then again, just putting on the show will be its own reward.

“We’ve done an awful lot around here over the past six months getting ready for this,” McKinzie said. “It will be a relief to open the meet and enjoy the racing.”