07/01/2014 1:34PM

Los Alamitos opens short meet with high expectations

Shigeki Kikkawa
Shared Belief, last year's champion 2-year-old male, will make his first stakes start of 2014 on Saturday in the Los Alamitos Derby.

CYPRESS, Calif. – The plan was launched more than a year ago, long before Hollywood Park announced that it would close at the end of 2013.

Los Alamitos wanted to be part of the Thoroughbred game.

A multifaceted improvement project was planned, expanding the five-furlong track used by Quarter Horses and lower-level Thoroughbreds to a mile. Year-round stall space would be available for Thoroughbreds, parts of the grandstand would be refurbished, and racing dates were requested for July and December, replacing some of what Hollywood Park left behind.

More than a year later, much of the background work is complete. The show starts Thursday with a two-week Thoroughbred meeting that bridges the end of the spring-summer meeting at Santa Anita last weekend with the start of the wildly popular Del Mar meeting July 17.

Los Alamitos, long known for top-class Quarter Horse racing, has a home on the Southern California Thoroughbred circuit.

This show will look a little different.

Los Alamitos does not have a turf course. It does have the $500,000 Los Alamitos Derby on Saturday that will mark the 2014 stakes debut of Shared Belief, the champion 2-year-old male of 2013. The reconfigured one-mile oval has a sharper first turn than most dirt tracks but a stretch of 1,380 feet, the longest in the nation.

[Los Alamitos Derby: Get PPs, watch Saturday's card live]

Los Alamitos is 35 miles from Santa Anita and 85 miles from Del Mar in an affluent Orange County market that has not been exposed to live Thoroughbred racing since Los Alamitos ran the Orange County Fair meeting, which ended in 1991.

The new meeting leaves officials optimistic but unsure how Thursday – and the rest of opening week – will be received.

“We don’t know what to expect,” said Brad McKinzie, the head of the track’s Thoroughbred operation. “Opening day is a Thursday. We don’t know if we’ll get 5,000 or 15,000. For the first week, we’re staffing as if we’ll fill every seat.”

The meeting runs through July 13 and includes two graded stakes. The Grade 2 Los Alamitos Derby was formerly run as the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park. The $200,000 Great Lady M Stakes, a Grade 2 for female sprinters on July 12, was formerly run as the A Gleam Stakes at Hollywood Park.

Thursday’s program is light on quality but better on quantity. There were 79 entries for the eight races, which will have a maximum of 72 starters after scratches from also-eligible lists. The day’s top race is the $100,000 Bertrando Stakes for California-breds over a mile. There are stakes scheduled on six of the eight racing days.

Field size is a concern for this meeting. With Del Mar and Santa Anita offering a higher purse structure, there is a belief that some owners and trainers will skip Los Alamitos in favor of Del Mar and its higher purses. For example, a maiden special weight race at Los Alamitos is worth $42,000, compared with $75,000 at Del Mar and $56,000 at Santa Anita.

“All of this work, manpower, and labor will be worth nothing if we don’t get support from the horsemen,” McKinzie said. “That’s something we can’t control.”

The track and grandstand at Los Alamitos have undergone significant changes in the last six months. Aside from the expanded oval, the barn area was reconfigured to dedicate 500 stalls to year-round training for Thoroughbreds while leaving space for the stables of Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds who run during the evenings on a year-round basis.

More stalls are being constructed. Barns housing approximately 90 horses and temporary stalls for 140 horses are scheduled to be available this week. Another 90 stalls will be constructed by late July, when the track will be active as an offtrack stabling venue during Del Mar.

The track has made refurbishments to the grandstand, including expanding the walking ring and winner’s circle, upgrading bathrooms, and adding a much-needed high-definition system to the in-house television network.

The work is not all for the July meeting.

In September, Los Alamitos will run 11 days previously held by the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona. In December, a 12-day Thoroughbred meeting will include two Grade 1 races formerly run at Hollywood Park as the CashCall Futurity and Starlet for 2-year-olds.

Track owner Dr. Ed Allred has told track executives to anticipate additional improvements and expansion to the property if the Thoroughbred meetings are successful.

“If we can do well, Dr. Allred is poised to make more of a commitment,” McKinzie said. “I think there is a lot of pent-up interest. If we can get through the first meet successfully, I think the September meeting will be more successful, and December will be even better. Something tells me we’ll be busy at Los Alamitos this year.”