07/04/2014 2:15PM

Hovdey: Los Alamitos holds its own on opening day

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Those 5,702 patrons passing through the turnstiles at Los Alamitos Race Course on Thursday afternoon had no idea they were semi-willing participants in a grand experiment, one designed to gauge the chances of Thoroughbred racing in Southern California making it to 2015 and beyond.

But how could they know? There were no guys standing around wearing lab coats, no sealed rooms with one-way glass, no video cameras focused on their every move. For all they knew, it was just another day at the races, complete with giveaway T-shirts, pulled pork sandwiches, and familiar faces like those of Jerry Hollendorfer, Doug O’Neill, Joe Talamo, Martin Garcia, Corey Nakatani, and Tyler Baze.

Still, all the signs were there that something different was afoot, especially the ones that read “Free Parking” just inside the Katella Avenue entrance and “Free Seating” in the grandstand. Is that a church over there behind the six-furlong chute? Okay, but then where did they put the turf course? Santa Anita hornblower Jay Cohen is on the scene, okay, but why was he making balloon animals for those people? And who was that tall, balding gent with the shambling gait who seemed to pop up in every nook and cranny?

“The teletimer went down, so we’ll be hand-timed today, but we’ll get that fixed quick,” said Brad McKinzie, the tall man, who carries the title and the load as president of the Los Alamitos Racing Association. “There are a couple of other little glitches we’ll get right. I just heard the escalator stopped, but now it’s up again. Poor thing wasn’t used to so many people.”

And the lines. Oh, the lines. There were none to speak of – for betting, for food, or for the women’s restrooms. In fact, the longest wait of the afternoon was for the shrimp at the center of the Vessels Club buffet, which underlined the desire of Dr. Ed Allred to staff his track so that everyone could have the best possible opening-day experience. “If people don’t come back to the races after a day like this, they were never coming back anyway,” said Jim Cassidy, president of the California Thoroughbred Trainers.

Cassidy did not have a starter on opening day, and with his barn dominated by turf horses, he is not likely to run much during the eight Los Alamitos programs. Peter Miller was there, however, up from San Luis Rey Downs, and took a winner home after Chattering Class won the fifth.

“This is the first time I’ve been here since they expanded the track,” Miller said. “It’s great, but, man, that is a long stretch, isn’t it? I was rooting pretty hard for the finish line to get there.”

Martin Pedroza, who turns 49 on July 20 and therefore has seen it all, was not about to let the 1,380-foot homestretch get the best of him aboard Chattering Class. It was Pedroza’s first winner since coming back from a badly fractured left leg last February, and as he returned to the winner’s circle – for the 3,608th time in his career – the rider spotted his longtime agent, Richie Silverstein, at the edge of the crowd.

“I still remember how, Richie,” Pedroza shouted. “I still remember.”

Later, Silverstein added a historical footnote.

“Did you know Martin won the title here before?” Silverstein said. “It was 1982, at the Orange County Fair. He was 17.”

Los Alamitos management is hoping to supply just such a linchpin of continuity to the Southern California circuit, which is still finding its way after the closure of Hollywood Park. The skepticism with which a segment of the Thoroughbred community initially greeted an association with the Quarter Horse world at Los Alamitos has begun to dissipate in the face of necessity, not to mention Allred’s considerable investment in capital improvements and expansion.

“Ed thanked me for all our support,” said Joe Harper, who hosted a large contingent of Del Mar management attending opening day. “I told him it was all of us who should be grateful. We don’t make it in California unless Los Alamitos succeeds as part of the Thoroughbred circuit.”

Allred, McKinzie, and their team have a wish list of goodies they’d like to add to Los Alamitos someday, including a six-furlong turf straightaway, infield video board, and more stabling. Such ambitions require the support of the market, however, which means everyone and his brother will become a Los Alamitos number-cruncher to gauge the reaction from fans and, more importantly, all-sources horseplayers. Just under $4.6 million was bet on opening day.

“I’m not surprised if the big players wait a bit to see how this track plays,” Allred said. “That only makes sense.”

In the meantime, a crowd of 5,702 on a weekday at any racetrack this side of Saratoga or Del Mar is a major accomplishment. At the end of the afternoon, McKinzie slumped into a high-backed bar stool and counted his blessings as a combo entertained the lingering customers.

“Guys like me who’ve been doing this long enough to remember what attendance used to be like feel a little weird when we get congratulated on a crowd of almost 6,000, but that’s the game today,” he said.

“On a day like this, the numbers matter, sure,” McKinzie added. “But here’s what I want to know: Did you have a good time? And will you come back?”

At which point, a member of his staff handed him a note, yet another glitch to fix. McKinzie had to laugh.

“It’s the band bus,” he said. “It’s blocking the armored truck.”

Danny More than 1 year ago
I am starting to believe most of the negativity are coming from losers who like playing favorites. I made quiet a bit of money when only 12 out of 34 favorites won which is a lot lower percentage normal. If you want to make your .20 cents just keep betting the NOCal track favorites. I enjoy good handicapping. and when 22 out of 34 winners were not favorite well more for me.
Jackson Jackson More than 1 year ago
12 out of 34 is about 35% .About the same as the favorite has been winning since they started keeping records :)
Jack Pritchard More than 1 year ago
When management Cards Two out of the FIRST 3 races, Maiden and maiden claimers shows you how "Out of touch" these Nit-Wits" in Management really are. How about asking your customers DID YOU WIN ANY MONEY or did the FACT that are first race was a maiden STOP you from betting the Double?? or, on MOST days we card a Maiden Claimer for the LAST race of the day,SO, if your "STUCK" at the end of the day you can just GUESS at the NIGHTCAP..Why NOT ask you customer IF they MADE ANY MONEY, MR McKINZIE, because that's what 99% of the People come for SIR, Wake-up!!!
David More than 1 year ago
So it's safe to say your not coming back! Curious that if your ok with a maiden claimer as the final race of the day so you can GUESS out the NIGHTCAP, than guessing your way in should not be a problem""
Gregory More than 1 year ago
David pretty sure Jack meant he's not okay with a maiden claimer as the last race of the day.
Jack Pritchard More than 1 year ago
Thank you Gregory...
Jackson Jackson More than 1 year ago
The nightcap at just about every track has always been a maiden claimer . Just as the DD has always been a claimer & a mdn or two claimers. That means just about ALWAYS Jack . At every track . Wake Up !!!
Bil Wil More than 1 year ago
Whiner. MOST people aren't going to win you 'out of touch nit-wit'. It ain't managements job to make Everybody Else money, clown.
RingForFrodo More than 1 year ago
You can market a horrible product all you want, but it won't do any good. Sunday's parade of six horse fields was unwatchable. Short-sighted TOC and CHRB board members trying to sell year round racing in both Northern and Southern California just don't get it.
russell More than 1 year ago
Where is the Fairplex? Los Al? Complete cheating game.
Bil Wil More than 1 year ago
I'm guessing YOU lost...which MUST mean the game is fixed. Couldn't possibly be YOU. POOR LOSER.
Cover2 More than 1 year ago
Will not anywhere close to the glitches they will have open day at Del Mar !
Vickie Aument More than 1 year ago
OKay now where is the TURF course??? Oh yes Hollywood Park,,,
Walt Gekko More than 1 year ago
To put in a turf course, Los Al likely would need to make further modification that would include finding a way to widen the main track via widening the turns to 1 1/16 Miles in circumference so a seven-and-a-half furlong turf course could be installed inside the current main track. This might have to happen anyway for Southern California to keep the BC after 2017 because of both the changing needs of television rights holders and also because if the Asia-Pacific region comes on board, they would need to be at a track capable of racing to 11:00 PM ET.
Bugsy Anderson More than 1 year ago
Woodbine is the only track in NA that got the turf course idea correctly.
Cover2 More than 1 year ago
Look how well Oaklawn draws, and with no grass, change to oakdirt ?
Steve Wilson More than 1 year ago
Hollywood Park is gone - get over it!
William Norton More than 1 year ago
Wow, Jay, a crowd of 5000 people you say? In a Metropolitan area that holds about 15 million? Impressive as hell.
Steve More than 1 year ago
You do realize that people don't have to get off their couch to bet anymore, right? This was a THURSDAY and traffic is a nightmare when they end at 5:30 p.m. All things considered, not bad. Could it have been better? Yes
Patricia Doyle More than 1 year ago
I wish them all of the luck in the world. They did a marvelous job on the track. I must admit I haven't been able to handicap many exotics. I may get a winner but the second horse doesn't come in and vice versa. That will come later. I have a feeling that IF the experiment ie. the thoroughbred meet is successful, we may hear about a turf course by Breeders' Cup. The track is really nice even with the long stretch. I will get the hang of handicapping the long stretch eventually Then before we know it, it will be Del Mar and then I have to calculate the Poly track horses. ....and then, Breeders' Cup and back to Santa Anita. I was glad to see Jay over there It would not be Southern Cal racing without him. Play it Jay!
james More than 1 year ago
Actually it's pretty good Einstein. Belmont Park in NYC drew ~1850 fans on the same day. Did any track in North America have a larger crowd that day? It will be interesting to see if LA can put together races that will attract simulcasting bettors. In this era, those dollars are more indicative of success than attendance numbers. Aside from Saratoga, what tracks are drawing big live crowds?
Chris Lowe More than 1 year ago
And a whole 2,600 on the 4th, pathetic.
Bil Wil More than 1 year ago
The Angels & Dodgers only drew 45K outta 15Million too...so that's like a total disaster also, right?? Lakers cant even draw 25K...how puny.
Gunner More than 1 year ago
Jay is good at holding his own!
TJ Weston More than 1 year ago
The races seem a little dull and repetitive. Maybe its the race callers monotone or the lack of scenery. Its ok for a short break but I don't get the feeling of a Major track even if they throw out some big money for a few stakes
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
No doubt a race caller with more flair would add to the races. Michael Wrona is among the best in the business. Would give him a blank check to get him to los al.
Steve More than 1 year ago
I agree. Burghart is better with the quarters
Amy Hurley More than 1 year ago
Have to agree with you. It's just okay - lacks the excitement and feel of SA or Del Mar. And yes, a lot of it has to do with having Trevor call the races. Burgart does have a boring monotone. The track just doesn't look as attractive, and it would be a lot more interesting with turf races.
RunningDog More than 1 year ago
It was a fun day. After 6 months at Santa Anita this was a nice change. Maybe a suggestion ...if there is a way to replace the white fence.on.the backstretch with something different if would enhance the view to look not so "fair like". I am hoping los al gets all of June in 2015.