08/30/2002 12:00AM

Insurance rate plan back to square one

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DEL MAR, Calif. - A self-insurance program that would have reduced workmen's compensation rates paid by California trainers collapsed in late August when a private insurance company backed out, forcing racing officials to restart the process of finding an insurance carrier.

According to Ed Halpern, the executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, a deal was nearly finalized with the First American insurance company when the carrier said it would not go through with the program.

"I was at the point where I thought we had a done deal," Halpern said.

Halpern said negotiations have started with another insurance company, which he declined to name. He said in the best case scenario a program would be in place by Nov. 1.

"I'm hopeful, but not optimistic," Halpern said.

Since March, when the last private insurance company left the market, trainers have been forced to buy policies with the government-backed State Fund, which charges considerably higher rates. In some cases, trainers are paying double the rates from a year ago. To offset the costs, many trainers have raised the daily training rates they charge to owners.

Racing officials are hoping to launch a self-insurance program that will reduce workmen's compensation costs by redirecting some money derived from mutuel handle that currently goes to other programs. To do so, an insurance carrier is needed to help launch the program, Halpern said.

Earlier this summer, legislation was approved that would take a portion of monies from a stabling and vanning fund and a marketing fund to offset higher insurance costs. The legislation is currently on the desk of Gov. Gray Davis, who has until Sept. 30 to act. Halpern said there is no reason to believe that Davis will not approve of the bill.

"Once the governor signs that bill, we can use that money to improve the situation," Halpern said.

The use of those funds, combined with the creation of a self-insurance program that would eventually be owned by horsemen, would help lower rates to pre-March levels, racing officials have said.

Halpern said that the second company made an offer in August, which was rejected in favor of the First American proposal. One of the stumbling points with the second company was a requirement for large down payments, which is part of the existing negotiations.

Without lower costs, the sport could suffer gravely, Halpern said.

"Over a period of months, this will reduce the number of horses and trainers significantly enough to affect our fields," Halpern said. "Everyone I've talked to says they've cut back on staff and gotten rid of marginal horses."

He said the effect could be felt in both northern and Southern California.

Valenzuela tightens grip on lead

A four-win day on Thursday may have given Patrick Valenzuela an insurmountable lead in the jockey standings. Through Thursday, with 11 racing days remaining at the Del Mar meeting, Valenzuela has 36 winners, 11 more than Laffit Pincay Jr. and 12 more than Victor Espinoza.

Valenzuela won the first three races on Thursday with Calista's Star ($4.60), Poly Ole ($5.60), and Stokin Coal ($4.20), and the seventh on American Czarina ($8.20). Calista's Star finished in a dead heat with Barely Daylight.

Valenzuela has won four riding titles at Del Mar, most recently in 1991.

Because of suspensions for substance abuse problems, this is the first year he has ridden at Del Mar since 1997.

Redattore recovering from illness

Redattore, scratched from the Longacres Mile at Emerald Downs last weekend because of illness, is scheduled to return to Southern California on Wednesday, trainer Richard Mandella said.

The winner of the San Antonio Handicap last February at Santa Anita, Redattore was expected to be favored in the Longacres Mile.

"That might have been the race of his career, the perfect spot," Mandella rued. "He responded well to the antibiotics. He's fine now."

Atlantic Ocean wins slow mile

Atlantic Ocean, purchased for $1.9 million at the Barretts 2-year-old in training sale in March, won a one-mile maiden race in her third career start on Thursday.

Ridden by Mike Smith for trainer Bob Baffert, Atlantic Ocean won by three lengths over the Baffert-trained Small Town Girl, but needed 1:39.36 to complete the trip.

"She collapsed at the end but the track's been dead. The good mares went in 1:37," Baffert said, referring to American Czarina's final time one race later.

Atlantic Ocean gave Baffert his eighth win with a 2-year-old maiden at the meeting. Baffert has won 22 races at the meeting. Last year, Baffert won seven races with 2-year-old maidens and 29 races overall.

* Three of Baffert's hopefuls for the $250,000 Del Mar Futurity on Sept. 11 worked six furlongs on Friday. Bull Market and Truckle Feature went in 1:11.20, while Friendly Mike went in 1:11.80. Baffert will try for an unprecedented seventh consecutive winner of the Del Mar Futurity.