01/31/2014 4:40PM

Jay Hovdey: Only sour taste remains after horses depart Hollywood

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Barbara D. Livingston
At Hollywood Park, there are few precious remnants of its glory days. Now the horses are gone, too.

The hostage crisis has ended.

Thoroughbred racing in California at long last has been freed from the passive/aggressive captivity imposed by the owners of Hollywood Park. As of Friday, Jan. 31, the remaining few horses were being vanned out of the spacious, relatively modern backstretch that was used for nearly a decade as leverage for the owners of Hollywood Park to maintain their cynical stranglehold on the sport.

However, just because the owners of Hollywood Park have gone – and taken the track with them – does not mean that the California industry is immediately free from the effects of the last eight years, when the property was owned by a land development company that cut capital improvements to the bone, deferred maintenance, and eventually abandoned any pretense of a viable marketing program.

Who knows how many live racing fans were soured forever on the sport by a visit to tawdry Hollywood Park? Or how many potential horse owners, thrilled at the idea of playing in prime time, were discouraged by the virtually deserted stands on the biggest days of the meet?

The immediate impact of the track’s closure was purely logistical. About a thousand horses had to be moved somewhere, which sounds simple enough since horses are moved around all the time. But not all of them move at once, and in the case of Hollywood Park there were stables uprooted and booted for good after decades of residence.

“It’s very sad and very weird,” said Doug O’Neill, whose Hollywood barn was home to classic winner I’ll Have Another and three-time Hollywood Gold Cup winner Lava Man. “Training at Hollywood Park was part of every day and a big part of our lives.”

The Hollywood exodus was carried out in waves over the past week. Stables either were consolidated at Santa Anita or spread to what will be primarily training centers at Los Alamitos, San Luis Rey Downs, and Barretts Racing at Fairplex Park. Issues are still unresolved as to how long the stabling and vanning fund provided to horsemen will be able to sustain the selection.

“I was at Barretts yesterday and worked a bunch,” said O’Neill, who now has horses at Santa Anita and Fairplex. “I couldn’t be happier with the way the track sounded and the way the horses pulled up. It really doesn’t make any sense to me why you can’t get a horse just as fit on a five-eighths track as on a mile track.”

O’Neill likes the undeniable convenience of Fairplex, located barely 20 miles east of Santa Anita. And while Los Alamitos is not much farther, O’Neill was leery about how the Thoroughbred-Quarter Horse mix would work.

“I’ve got nothing against the Quarter Horse guys,” O’Neill said. “But we have enough trouble getting along in our own Thoroughbred world. To me, it looks like two different businesses with two different mind-sets trying to co-exist in tight quarters. I’d prefer that other people go there first and see what they say.”

Mike Puype, trainer of two-time Breeders’ Cup winner Mizdirection and a Hollywood resident of long-standing, has divided his stable between Santa Anita and Los Alamitos, where a five-furlong surface has been expanded to one mile, and barns with 500 stalls have been refurbished for new Thoroughbred tenants.

“They have made a serious commitment,” Puype said Friday morning as he supervised a set at Los Alamitos. “My barn here has a lot of potential to make something very nice. With San Luis Rey being a little out of my wheel house for keeping an eye on my horses, I thought it was a no-brainer coming here.”

Pupye and O’Neill are among a half a dozen or so trainers with the limit of between 40 and 50 horses at Santa Anita. They were asked if their operations at Fairplex or Los Alamitos might be perceived as second strings in the eyes of their clients.

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a concern,” O’Neill said. “From my experience, though, a safe track is the most important thing. And we’ve got that there.

“Time will tell, but I think we’ll even have an edge. It’s wall-to-wall horses at Santa Anita, and it’s very tranquil over there. Horses that like a more quiet setting are going to thrive.”

Puype sees a similar advantage to Los Alamitos.

“All I have to do is bring a client down here and they’ll see it’s not a second string kind of place,” Puype said. “There’s a lot of room for the horses. They’re walking calm and quiet to and from the track on a nice dirt path. You’ve got a mile track and great track man in Dennis Moore, so there’s no concern about the surface.”

O’Neill has installed his right-hand man, assistant Leandro Mora, at Barretts along with the barn’s hard-working mascot, 13-year-old Lava Man, America’s richest stable pony. Otherwise there wasn’t much they could salvage from their old Hollywood digs. Security discouraged large-scale souvenir collection.

“We did do a couple of double-takes before we took down the 63-North sign on the side of our barn,” O’Neill said. “I figured it was going in the trash bin, and it was the one keepsake we needed to take along. As far as our operation is concerned Barn 8 at Barretts has got to feel like 63-North at Hollywood Park.”