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.”

tanya mcmahon More than 1 year ago
when this track was originally designed by ED Burke it was a 1 mile track for these very reasons. Over the years various dummies have changed it at great expense, it has gone the way of the barn area and the clubhouse . Under Millie Vessels, Brad MCKENZIE , and other industry outsiders the track has gone from a showplace in the 1960s to the most run down track in california. Great idea:lets change it back the way it was. Los Alamitos has had the reputation of being second rate, and that is very obvious to all. It took current management several years to destroy a good model.
Greg Jones More than 1 year ago
Instead of the track being the main priority, the horses should be. No track sends more of their horses to auction (slaughter) then the trainers and owners at Los Alamitos. A travesty that many never mention.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The "TRACK" doesn't send horses to the kill auctions, the trainer and owners do. It is indeed a travesty, and I'd be betting that quite a few owners have no idea where their horses go (good home, little girl blah blah blah) and there are many who DO know and who DON'T care. Same for trainers. The general public, racegoing or not, have very little knowledge about the horse meat industry. They simply do not understand the global issue with horses being the choice meat on the foreign dinner tables all around the world. Further, they don't understand how horrible the transportation to the factory as well as their last days or minutes in the horrid place. They are NOT like any other animal. Which is not to say that all animals bound to be food are universally treated and killed humanely, because we certainly know they are not.
Walter More than 1 year ago
Is this true about the horses at LosAl? If so, what a damn shame
Linda Broussard More than 1 year ago
Yes, it is a fact. It is also a fact that Los Al has long been a dumping ground for mega-barn trainers who want to be rid of TBs who don't fit their Hollywood-style images. Los Al is also a refuge for trainers who catch bad test after bad test after bad test, pay their fines and move on. As long as the inmates continue to run the asylum, that's how it's gonna be.
Greg Jones More than 1 year ago
Instead of the track being the main priority, the horses should be. No track sends more of their horses to auction (slaughter) then the trainers and owners at Los Alamitos. A travesty that many never mention.
Ann More than 1 year ago
No talk about a turf course? What big league track is without a turf course these days? Oaklawn, excepted of course.
Daniel155 More than 1 year ago
I am not sure if there is enough room
M More than 1 year ago
Yep, too small, and some tracks made mistake of putting grass inside dirt track creating perilous tight turns. Better to let turf/synthetic run at GG and dirt at Los Al.... But I'd like to see a deeper, softer surface than SA. So late running horses that often do well on synthetics/ turf would want to try it before they write it off.
Walter More than 1 year ago
So it sounds like this new track will not be symmetrical? That is what I picture. Regarding the racing, don't worry the big trainers & jocks will show up there. They like money and what is the alternative? There is no where else for them to go when LosAl runs. This is nothing like Fairplex. Fpx has always been the time for smaller outfits to run & big trainers & jocks take vacations or travel for big races outside CA. Have faith & let's be positive.
Ann More than 1 year ago
Jamaica, the original home of the Wood Memorial, etc., was egg-shaped - the first turn was pretty sharp, the backstretch angled outward, and the far turn was long and gradual.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anything that doesn't have Stronach input on it is welcome change. Good luck to Los Alamitos...only, let's consider a name change. There's nothing "-itos" about these changes.
John Murray More than 1 year ago
Elsewhere several posts decry Cal racing in many locations, I would like to know specifically why you do not agree with Stronach? Evidence please?
Ann More than 1 year ago
It has to be his way or the highway, no matter how hare-brained his ideas are. He tore down the old GP grandstand to build a casino/grandstand that shortchanges race-watchers; he wants to have his tracks running whenever he likes, preferably year-round. He's so cheap, he wouldn't even pay the CHARITABLE Oak Tree association (deductible!) to use its time-honored race-names and came up with lame replacements. His management did such a poor job installing the state-mandated AW course, something Hol and Dmr did fine with, that he had to change it twice in 3 years. He nearly drove Maryland racing, with its 300 year-old history, in the ditch with his monopoly control.
Mike B More than 1 year ago
There is potential here. I like the focus on the track. A superb racing surface and well designed track is key. As are racing politics and re-branding/marketing. Get those three right (surface; politics; and branding) and you could make a nice niche track here. The comments are on to something: be what Santa Anita is not. For the premier TB meets--be a place for TB to run on a deeper, more tiring dirt track with a different configuration (a place for dirt stretch runners in SoCal). Heck, Stronach needs some time to do stall/surface construction and maintenance. Then year round, be the mid-grade TB track (not just 5K and below 4.5F all night) run creative TUP and EMD cards--keeping it sub 8K (the SA, DMR threshold) but do it in all kinds of fun ways. The horses not quite at SA level, will stable and ship. Also, from across western US, horses may come for nice purses (EMD, Canada, ID, CO, Fairs, etc) and the SoCal weather and racing experience, even if they are not quite SA quality. Write tons of 5K-6.25K-7.5K claiming, starters (for low level claiming), even handicaps, sprint series, routing claiming championships, creative betting, lower takeouts etc. And the draw will be the dirt--the only "other dirt" action in SoCal year round. I believe there is a market for a mid level track (not rock bottom, but not quite elite level SA)
Forego137 More than 1 year ago
Big mistake by L.A. once it starts to get attention Stronach will not like that and he will target the racing dates L.A. will be getting because he wants to control all of horse racing on the West Coast. "LOS ALAMITOS TO CLOSE" is the next headlines we'll be reading in a few years.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"Help! Help! The sky is falling!"
John Stevelberg More than 1 year ago
A diagram would be nice - seems like a "patchwork" deal - and no Turf course. As for Del Mar have a hunch whatever they do will be FIRST CLASS. Would love to see the CUP where the "turf meets the surf" !
Goldhybrid More than 1 year ago
As a previous poster said, a picture is worth a thousand words. Maybe you could have given us a diagram with a basic rendering of the new track and one for Santa Anita.