10/18/2013 11:08AM

Jay Hovdey: Los Alamitos transformation to big time right on track

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As noted in this space the other day, the Thoroughbreds of California and their diligent keepers will be faced with two brand-new training and racing layouts come sometime next year.

At Del Mar, management finally has pulled the trigger on a long-planned widening of its infield turf course, creating a 10 1/2-acre expanse of greenery they hope will attract the attention of the Breeders’ Cup. Up the road at Los Alamitos, the home of California’s prime Quarter Horse population, ambitions are not quite so lofty, but the project is every bit as intense. There, they must make the earth move.

The disappearance of Hollywood Park – for racing at the end of the year and training in early 2014 – forced upon the California Thoroughbred industry a burst of creative thought to solve what loomed as a stabling crisis. Fairplex Park, Los Alamitos, and the San Luis Rey Downs training center northeast of Del Mar each had its pluses and minuses, but none of them solved the problem alone.

San Luis Rey is a long drive from Santa Anita, where most of Southern California’s racing will take place beginning next year. Fairplex Park is handy, but the track is only five-eighths around. Ditto Los Alamitos, but that is about to change.

Pending the final approval of municipal permits, the big machinery is poised to dig into a patch of prime Orange County real estate that was once part of a tight, rolling, unforgiving golf course mercifully closed in 2004 (anyone see my Titleist 5?). Bordered on one side by the Los Alamitos stable area and on the other by a neighborhood of tract homes, this urban wilderness will provide the space to transform the Los Alamitos five-furlong oval into a one-mile dirt layout.

To justify the expenditure, Los Alamitos has been granted five weeks worth of Southern California Thoroughbred dates – two in early July and three in December – formerly part of the Hollywood Park package. In return, Los Alamitos management, in the person of owner Ed Allred, is making the track available year round for the training of up to 500 Thoroughbreds.

There were concerns, and rightfully so, that the expansion from five furlongs to a mile track would replicate the experience of Sportsman’s Park, where in 1992 a five-furlong track was lengthened to seven furlongs by stretching the straightaways like a slide trombone, while the turns remained bullring sharp.

Los Alamitos is surrounded by church properties (Seacoast Grace to the north and east, Cottonwood to the west), so designers have confronted the physical restrictions, at least on paper, with a unique design for the proposed new section of track extending westward from the end of the present backstretch.

At the point where the Grace Church property ends, hard by Cerritos Drive, the course will angle ever so slightly right for about an eighth of a mile before rounding back toward the existing quarter-mile chute. The rightward kink sets up a final turn radius comparable to what is currently in play around the Santa Anita, Del Mar, or Hollywood main tracks.

“I call it ‘The Fade’ and then comes ‘The Hook,’” said Brad McKinzie, a longtime Quarter Horse industry consultant who has been the point man for the expansion project. “Kind of keeping with the golf theme.”

At that moment McKinzie was bouncing a visitor in a golf cart through the overgrown wilderness of the former golf course, unrecognizable now save for a water hazard, a span of decorative railroad ties, and a pile of cart path concrete rubble. Thickets of sage and chaparral lined the rough trails, while stands of tall, bearded palm trees stood as reminders of the benign coastal climate.

“Yeah, I’m sure there’s wildlife back here,” McKinzie said, answering a question. “We’ve had to be sensitive to any habitat that’s been created since the golf course was closed, and that’s all part of the approval process.”

More bouncing.

“There’s where the turn links with the chute,” McKinzie said, indicating a set of surveyor stakes. “The stretch will end up being a little bit longer than the one at Churchill Downs.”

The project consultants include veteran track superintendant Dennis Moore, who has received high praise for his handling of the Hollywood Park synthetic surface, and Mick Peterson, the racing surface guru who has worked with more than 30 Thoroughbred tracks, as well as Robert Parsky, the track architect instrumental in building the courses for Canterbury Downs, the Meadowlands, and Remington Park. As much as their talents have been applied to the design of the new Los Alamitos extension, it is the existing clubhouse turn with its relatively tight 295-foot radius that is still in discussion.

“We’ve got some options here,” McKinzie said, wading through the main track’s dark, sandy loam. “We could bring the rail out and bring the radius up to a little over 300 feet. We could also leave it alone and create a much wider, sweeping turn with a gentle grade, one that would allow riders to choose their own path around the turn.”

In addition to the track redesign, there will be renovations to the Los Alamitos grandstand facilities in anticipation of the Thoroughbred meets.

“We realize the name Los Alamitos means Quarter Horse racing and cheaper Thoroughbreds to most people,” McKinzie said. “But we’re planning on presenting first-class Thoroughbred meets.

“Still, the track is the priority. No matter what our hopes and dreams, we know that if we don’t build a good track nothing else matters.”