07/04/2014 3:15PM

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.”