09/03/2014 11:59AM

Los Alamitos faces challenges in second meet

Benoit & Associates
The Los Alamitos September meet replaces the Fairplex meet on the racing calendar.

CYPRESS, Calif. – Reconfiguring the racing circuit in Southern California was always going to be a bumpy ride. So was rebranding a racetrack.

Los Alamitos opens Friday for an 11-day fall Thoroughbred meet which replaces the Los Angeles County Fair meet held at Fairplex Park. The decision by Fairplex to cease live racing, along with Hollywood Park’s closure, meant the circuit lost two tracks in a year.

But the racing never stopped. Santa Anita extended its winter-spring meet until late June, Los Alamitos will host three short Thoroughbred meets, and Del Mar added a fall season. The year-round racing motor sputtered, misfired, but kept on chugging.

:: Opening day at Los Alamitos: Get PPs, watch Friday's card live

Los Alamitos general manager Brad McKinzie acknowledged the track’s initial 2014 Thoroughbred meet, an eight-day run July 3-13, was a trial.

“We knew we were in a tough spot,” McKinzie said. “When you have Del Mar waiting in front of you, with the purses they offer, we knew summer was going to be a tough meet. The first week, our numbers were great. And then, quite frankly, it fell apart.”

Average field size the first week of summer was 7.41 starters per race; average field size the second week was 6.55. The meet began strong and then fizzled. Los Alamitos faced a difficult test. The track had a reputation as a top Quarter Horse track, but an all-Thoroughbred meet was not custom.

“We had to rebrand ourselves, which is extremely difficult,” McKinzie said. “We had to establish Los Alamitos as a brand for Thoroughbred racing.”

The fall meet begins Friday with an appealing eight-race card, with an average field size of 8.5. It is a good start. The hope is by reducing the meet to 11 days, from the 13 days previously run in the fall at Fairplex, quality will increase. Los Alamitos runs its Sept. 5-21 meet Friday through Sunday opening week; Thursday through Sunday the final two weeks.

“We’d rather offer four days of quality racing than five days of marginal racing,” McKinzie said. “It’s a numbers game. If [bettors] look at our program and see nice full fields – 10-horse fields and some nines and eights – they’ll play us. It’s that simple.”

Racing secretary Bob Moreno notes two distinctions likely to improve the product from a year ago at Fairplex.

“You will never see a four-furlong race,” Moreno said, referring to the mundane half-mile races that last fall represented 25 percent (33 of 132 races) of the Fairplex program.

Secondly, the bottom claiming level has been lowered to $6,250 from the summer bottom of $8,000. Moreno believes that will improve field size. An example is in the first race of the meet – eight were entered in the restricted $6,250 claiming sprint.

First post throughout the meet is 2 p.m. Pacific. The opening card includes two maiden special weight races, an optional-claiming sprint, and the $75,000 E.B. Johnston Stakes in which Solid Wager may be poised for a minor upset.

Momentum should continue Saturday, when a strong field is expected in the $200,000 Los Alamitos Mile, including streaking sprinter Masochistic. The $75,000 Beverly Lewis Stakes also will be run, but the star on Saturday might be a horse that will work, rather than race.

California Chrome, the Kentucky Derby winner based at Los Alamitos, is scheduled to work either five furlongs or six furlongs between the third and fourth races Saturday at about 3:15 p.m. He is aiming for a Sept. 20 return in the Pennsylvania Derby at Parx.

Los Alamitos all-sources handle averaged slightly more than $5 million during the eight-day summer meet. Officials expect handle to increase for the fall meet, and grow further when Los Alamitos hosts its Dec. 4-21 winter meet.

“We are looking at this fall meet as a continuation of our summer meet and our upcoming winter meet, so they all flow together,” McKinzie said. “Now, coming into this fall meet, horseplayers know how this track plays and what Los Alamitos has to offer – quality Thoroughbred racing that you can bet on.”