11/22/2013 2:26PM

Jay Hovdey: San Luis Rey Downs, a relic of 1970s, comes back into style

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Rummaging around its closets, looking for any place to store racehorses beginning in early 2014, the good folks in charge of the game in Southern California came across a taped up cardboard box labeled The Seventies, from which emerged several pairs of bellbottoms, a few wide-collared shirts in a variety of floral patterns, cassette tapes from some group called Supertramp, and – what’s this? – 500 perfectly good stalls and a one-mile racetrack at a place called San Luis Rey Downs.

The havoc wrought by the closure of Hollywood Park has sent ripples in every direction, though none more traumatic than identifying where and under what conditions the suddenly homeless population of horses would be trained. Short of building a brand-new facility – fat chance – the proposed solutions have been neither simple nor completely satisfying.

San Luis Rey Downs Training Center – along with Fairplex Park and Los Alamitos – has now become a key component of what is at least a short-term solution. Located in north San Diego County just west of Interstate 15, the training center came under the ownership of Santa Anita Park during the pre-bankruptcy years of Magna Entertainment. At one time or another over the past decade it was sold, then not sold, then leased to a consortium of trainers who preferred the idyllic calm of a facility whose closest claim to advanced civilization was the Lawrence Welk Resort in Escondido.

Now, with the privately held Stronach Group in control, San Luis Rey Downs has been getting a major facelift since the summer in preparation for a full house of 500 horses early next year, harkening back to its heyday in the 1970s, when many of the West’s top trainers had second strings at the training center.

“With Hollywood set to close for training at the end of January, our target date is to be ready for horses by mid-January,” said Tom Ludt, Santa Anita senior vice president of racing and gaming. “We’re on schedule for that.”

As he spoke, Ludt was standing in one of the four large adobe brick barns built in 1969, with their high ceilings, generous aisles and outward facing stalls. Ten other prefabricated barn structures complete the stable area, which also includes a large arena and an equine swimming pool which has been resurfaced and modernized with a new filtration system. The barns had been painted, the ceilings cleaned, aisles leveled, and stall floors refurbished with packed soil. Ludt apologized for the landscaping.

“That’s the last thing we have to do,” he said. “And we’ll be doing quite a bit – not just around the barns but also in the infield of the track and the road leading to the entrance. Mr. Brackpool wants us to make it pretty.”

That would be Keith Brackpool, chairman of Santa Anita Park, who just spent $15 million prettying up parts of the Santa Anita clubhouse and former Turf Club to generally positive reviews.

“All it really needed was some TLC,” said Peter Miller, who operated his public stable out of San Luis Rey Downs until a few years ago, when he relocated to Hollywood Park. “The track was fine, and it was always a great place to train.”

In fact, the racetrack was dug up, regraded and resurfaced, and now will be under the auspices of veteran superintendent Dennis Moore, who will move from Hollywood Park to the same position with the tracks under the Santa Anita umbrella.

“That’s very good news,” Miller said. “Dennis is a trackman who knows how to work with horsemen.”

San Luis Rey is surrounded by attractive housing developments and a golf course. Within the property itself there are large hunks of land that tease the imagination with horsey possibilities, but for now the barns and the main track are the priority. Even Brackpool’s idea of building a turf course inside the dirt track is on hold for now, primarily because of the construction problems posed by a tunnel leading to a small galloping track in the main track’s interior.

“We’ve found a lot of things dating back to who knows when,” Ludt said. “Fortunately, this is a great piece of property, with plenty of room between the barns. It feels like it’s got some real history.”

If he only knew. San Luis Rey Downs was built to be a parimutuel racing facility by C. Arnholt Smith and his acolyte, John Alessio. It was their intention to wrest the choice summer racing dates away from the track at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, and since Smith was the most powerful business figure in San Diego and Alessio ran North America’s largest sports book at Caliente racetrack in Tijuana, their chances seemed good. They failed.

San Luis Rey Downs lived on as a training center, though, long after both Smith and Alessio did time in prison for financial malfeasance. More recently, San Luis Rey has been known as the home of 2002 Horse of the Year Azeri – it still says so on the entrance sign – and now it has risen again from the near dead, to play a role in the brave new world of California racing post-Hollywood Park.