01/16/2014 2:42PM

Los Alamitos tries to fill void left by Hollywood Park

Kevin Dinh
Los Alamitos had hosted a mixed meet of racing as part of the Orange County Fair from 1977 to 1991.

CYPRESS, Calif. – Pete Parrella was in his 20s when he first visited Los Alamitos Race Course in the 1960s.

“I stood on the apron,” Parrella recalled. “There were 10,000 people there. It was standing room only.”

Parrella was there to watch champion Quarter Horse Kaweah Bar and to spend time at the races with some buddies from work.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” he said. “I tried to figure out all the numbers, and I was hooked.”

In the past four decades, Parrella has developed a successful Southern California lumber business that allowed him to buy Quarter Horse runners, a farm in Chino, Calif., and later invest in Thoroughbreds. Today, Parrella and his wife, Evelyn, are active Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred owners who sometimes spend afternoons at the Thoroughbred races at Santa Anita and evenings watching Quarter Horses at Los Alamitos.

Later this year, one trip to Los Alamitos will meet all their needs.

Los Alamitos will operate Thoroughbred meetings in June and December as part of a 2014 racing calendar in Southern California revamped following the closure of Hollywood Park last month.

Last summer, the California Horse Racing Board awarded Los Alamitos five weeks of racing dates previously held by Hollywood Park – July 3-13 and Dec. 4-21. In the last month, construction crews have been busily extending the main track to a mile from its previous circumference of five-eighths of a mile to accommodate Thoroughbred racing, at an estimated cost of $3 million.

In the third week of January, approximately 475 Thoroughbreds were scheduled to move into the barn area at Los Alamitos as part of an auxiliary stabling program to replace the stables at Hollywood Park, which close Feb. 1. Los Alamitos currently has stabling capacity for 500 Thoroughbreds, but that could be increased depending on demand.

It is estimated that there will be 1,000 Quarter Horses on the grounds in July, when Los Alamitos is hosting the Thoroughbred meet at the same time as a Quarter Horse meet, bringing the stables to near capacity of 1,500. Los Alamitos is prepared to install 200 temporary stalls if necessary.

The additional racing dates and year-round stabling at Los Alamitos are the most significant changes to Southern California racing in decades, arguably since Hollywood Park began racing in the fall in 1981. For Parrella, a vice president of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association and a former member of the board of directors of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, the Orange County track offers a unique opportunity for the sport.

“I think it’s a good move,” said Parrella, 70. “Those guys have a vision, and I think you’ll see other things happen there as time goes on.”

Los Alamitos, which opened in 1951, has hosted Thoroughbred meetings in the past. From 1977 to 1991, the three-week Orange County Fair operated a mixed meeting consisting primarily of Thoroughbred racing. The fair was run during the day from 1977 to 1980 before moving to evenings.

The meeting initially was held in the fall before being switched to summertime in 1986. The Orange County Fair was discontinued in 1992 when the organization’s board voted to end racing because of declining revenue.

Through the 1990s, Los Alamitos alternated between hosting meetings for Quarter Horses and Standardbreds, with an emphasis on Quarter Horses from 1995 to 1999. At the end of 1999, current track owner Dr. Ed Allred discontinued Standardbred racing, a circuit that moved to Cal-Expo in Sacramento.

For the past 14 years, Los Alamitos has run year-round meetings for Quarter Horses and lower-level Thoroughbreds. What started as a four-nights-per-week program has been reduced to the current schedule of three nights per week because of a low inventory of horses.

In the last two decades, since the Orange County Fair was discontinued, the track’s appearance has changed considerably. The infield paddock was demolished in the early 1990s, replaced by a paddock on the west side of the grandstand. The walking ring was moved from the infield to space on the apron, which also doubles as the winner’s circle. The Vessels Club, a turf club-style restaurant, was added in the late 1990s.

For the upcoming Thoroughbred meeting, a box-seat area adjacent to the Vessels Club will be refurbished. Other improvements to the grandstand will be considered for 2015.

The track presently has seating capacity of 6,000. The record attendance of 17,234 was set in 1980. In recent years, Los Alamitos’s largest attendance has been for a night of dachshund races in July that has drawn crowds of more than 10,000 on several occasions. The ontrack crowds for Quarter Horse programs in recent weeks has ranged from 650 to 2,400.

Richer demographics

The changes are being made with the assumption that ontrack business will thrive with the addition of Thoroughbred racing this year. A resumption of full-time Thoroughbred racing in Orange County, even for two short meetings, brings the sport closer to an affluent area of Southern California.

The track is located in the suburban community of Cypress, adjacent to the city of Los Alamitos, the track’s namesake. Cypress is 30 miles southeast of Los Angeles International Airport.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Cypress residents had a median annual income of $80,440 from 2008 to 2012, compared with $44,558 for Inglewood, the city where Hollywood Park is located. By comparison, residents of Arcadia, the home of Santa Anita Park, had a median income of $77,342 during that time, according to Census data.

Los Alamitos is 35 miles south of Santa Anita, 85 miles north of Del Mar, and five miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. The track is in northern Orange County, about 15 miles from ritzy Newport Beach and seven miles from Huntington Beach, one of the most famous coastlines in California. There are numerous other Orange County towns within a short drive of Los Alamitos.

“What’s nice about Orange County [is that] if you live in Mission Viejo or Irvine, you are 20 to 30 minutes to Los Alamitos,” said Parrella, who lives in the Orange County coastal town of Corona Del Mar. “If you go to Santa Anita, it would be an hour’s drive. If you go during the week, the traffic home is a nightmare.”

Parrella has raced horses at Los Alamitos since the early 1980s. He raced Quarter Horse champions Flying Fig and Griswold, who ran second to Thoroughbred Valiant Pete in an 870-yard match race at Santa Anita in April 1991. Parrella sold his Chino farm in the 2000s and moved his family’s Legacy Ranch to Clements, outside of Sacramento. The farm is home to three Thoroughbred stallions and his family’s Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses.

Parrella was at Los Alamitos on the evening of Dec. 22, the final day of racing at Hollywood Park, to watch his Quarter Horses. He expects Los Alamitos to have successful ontrack business.

“I think it will be great at Los Alamitos in the afternoon,” he said.

Despite the absence of high-level Thoroughbred racing at Los Alamitos for many years, there is an interest in the sport in Orange County. In the past, Los Alamitos officials have been quick to note that their track handled more than Santa Anita as a satellite location on Kentucky Derby Day in past years when Hollywood Park hosted live racing.

Each summer, Del Mar draws from Orange County for its summer race meeting. Those fans are likely to give Los Alamitos a try, according to Del Mar president Joe Harper.

“They’re in a good market,” Harper said. “Orange County is a good market for us, and I think they’ll do well.”

Los Alamitos is privately held, owned since 1998 by Allred, the nation’s most influential owner and breeder of Quarter Horses for the past 30 years. The day-to-day business of managing the Thoroughbred meeting will be led by Allred’s longtime consultant, Brad McKinzie, who has served as general manager of Quarter Horse meetings at Bay Meadows, Hollywood Park, and Los Alamitos. McKinzie began working at Los Alamitos in the late 1970s.

Since early 2013, McKinzie has been a frequent presence at racing-board meetings and at other Thoroughbred tracks, promoting the Los Alamitos expansion. It is a subject that is almost a decade old.

In 2005, Allred and prominent Thoroughbred owner Mike Pegram developed a plan for a $50 million investment in Los Alamitos to include an expanded main track, construction of a new turf course, additional stables, and improvements to the grandstand and clubhouse.

At the time, Allred and Pegram envisioned Los Alamitos taking a prominent role in Southern California Thoroughbred racing if Hollywood Park went out of business. The plan was announced in the months before Hollywood Park was sold by Churchill Downs to Bay Meadows Land Co. Later that year, Bay Meadows Land Co. bought Hollywood Park and said it would keep that track open for a minimum of three years while seeking alternative forms of gambling on the site.

Less than a year later, Pegram backed out of the Los Alamitos project, citing the lack of a definite date for the closure of Hollywood Park. Pegram is not financially involved in the current Los Alamitos expansion but is expected to run horses there.

The 2005 expansion plan can no longer be implemented because Allred has sold some land to a church that would have been needed for that project to be realized.

Los Al fills new role

By late 2012, when rumblings began that Hollywood Park was unlikely to operate after 2013, Los Alamitos began discussions with horsemen’s organizations about acquiring racing dates and providing year-round stabling. After Hollywood Park officials told the racing board in January 2013 that it would commit to operating only through 2013, conversations between Los Alamitos and other officials in the sport intensified.

By late January 2013, Los Alamitos held discussions with the city of Cypress about permits needed for expansion. A month later, McKinzie made presentations to the boards of the Thoroughbred Owners of California and the California Thoroughbred Trainers about expansion. Officials with Barretts Sales and Racing at the Los Angeles County Fair at Fairplex Park made similar proposals at the time.

When some horsemen expressed skepticism about Los Alamitos’s plans, Los Alamitos dropped plans for expansion.

“At this time, we won’t get involved with industry infighting,” McKinzie said in response to the feedback it received.

Within 60 days, however, the situation changed. Fairplex Park was no longer actively seeking expansion, and conversations resumed between Los Alamitos, racetracks, and horsemen’s groups. McKinzie approached the racing board in May 2013 and asked for two weeks of racing dates in December 2014. By the end of the summer, the plan had grown to include a race meeting in July and an additional week at the end of 2014.

The racing dates were allocated by the racing board last September, setting off a chain of events that resulted in Los Alamitos receiving permission from the city of Cypress on Dec. 9 to expand its track. Construction crews began an earth-moving project the following day.

Dennis Moore, the longtime track consultant at Los Alamitos, who took a similar position at Santa Anita last month, has overseen the expansion.

Thoroughbred racing at Los Alamitos will be conducted four days a week, Thursdays through Sundays. The Quarter Horse program will continue on a Friday-through-Sunday basis, with only a brief break between the end of the Thoroughbred program each afternoon and the start of Quarter Horse races in the evenings. In July and December, it will be possible for racing fans to sit in the grandstand or Vessels Club and watch 16-18 live horse races from early afternoon into the evening.

Those evening race programs are a mix of Quarter Horses and lower-level Thoroughbreds. Since 1993, Los Alamitos has been limited by legislation to running Thoroughbred races at 4 1/2 furlongs for horses competing at claiming prices of $2,000 to $5,000. All Thoroughbred races must be exactly 4 1/2 furlongs and are run out of a chute on the backstretch.

About 30 percent to 40 percent of the races are carded for these low-level Thoroughbreds since there has been a shortage of Quarter Horses available for racing. Many of the Thoroughbreds competing at Los Alamitos began their careers on Southern California’s major Thoroughbred circuit before sinking down the claiming ranks.

The Thoroughbred races have been vital to the track’s sustainability in recent years. With purses for Quarter Horse races growing at slot-fueled racetracks in Louisiana, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, the number of Quarter Horses active at Los Alamitos has fallen in the past 15 years.

The track still hosts many of the nation’s leading races for Quarter Horses, including three seven-figure futurities, but the lower-level claiming ranks have been decimated.

The stalls those Quarter Horses once occupied will now be devoted to Thoroughbreds.

How the meeting will be received by owners and trainers, as well as casual and dedicated racing fans, remains to be seen. Los Alamitos will not have a turf course, eliminating some of the potential Thoroughbred population from competing. The summer meeting’s proximity to Del Mar, and its lucrative purses, could lead some owners and trainers to skip Los Alamitos entirely and wait for Del Mar.

Los Alamitos has hosted intertrack wagering for almost 25 years and has a mature audience of simulcast bettors. But the track has a miniscule marketing and promotion budget for its Quarter Horse meeting, leading to small crowds for evening races.

Track officials vow to change that for the Thoroughbred meeting and have hired former TVG executive Tony Allevato to direct marketing for the Thoroughbred seasons.

McKinzie said one of Allevato’s main tasks will be attracting simulcasting business throughout the United States and the account-wagering market.

“We’re not worried about ontrack,” McKinzie said. “We’re a new entity in a great market. I think we’ll do fine in California satellites.

“The biggest challenge is with the out-of-state satellite and [account-wagering] horseplayers. That’s such a big part of this market. They can bet on any signal in the country. We need to have brand awareness so they know that we’re racing.

“We have to let them know this is different than a Los Alamitos Thoroughbred night meet. It’s an extension of Santa Anita and a prelude to Del Mar. We have to educate them on the type of horses and horsemen that will be here.”

Several aspects of the summer meeting have yet to be finalized, such as a stakes schedule and which stakes previously run at Hollywood Park will be retained. There are discussions about a July race for 3-year-olds at 1 1/8 miles with a purse of $400,000 to $500,000 that would be a natural prep for either the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park or the Jim Dandy at Saratoga.

At the December meet, Los Alamitos is expected to have a rich futurity and a rich stakes for juvenile fillies to take the place on the Southern California calendar of the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity and the Grade 1 Starlet Stakes.

Last month, Los Alamitos announced that Robert Moreno, racing secretary at the Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa and a longtime racing-office employee at Southern California tracks, will be its racing secretary. Jay Slender, the starter at the current Santa Anita meeting, will work in the same capacity at Los Alamitos.

Overall, purses are likely to be close to what was offered at Hollywood Park, at least for the summer meeting.

Moreno said the absence of turf racing will help the overall purse structure, since turf races are run for higher-quality horses and require a significant financial commitment. He said the preliminary plan is for maiden special weight races to be worth $42,000, compared with $45,000 at the 2013 Hollywood Park fall meeting and $56,000 at the current Santa Anita meeting.

Moreno said he will seek approval from the Thoroughbred Owners of California to lower the bottom claiming price from the current $8,000 level to $6,250.

“The purses will be a little less,” Moreno said. “We’re going for what they have between Hollywood and Pomona and hoping for the best. We want to stay as close as we can to Hollywood, Santa Anita, and Del Mar.”

Aside from five weeks of racing, having Los Alamitos as an auxiliary stabling venue is vital, according to Joe Morris, president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California.

“We needed them to step in,” Morris said. “It would have been harder without them.”

Santa Anita has stabling capacity for 1,950 horses. Hollywood Park had approximately 1,000 horses on its backstretch at the end of its final meeting in December. Some of those horses are being sent to Santa Anita, with others going to Los Alamitos, Barretts Sales and Racing at Fairplex Park, and the San Luis Rey Downs training center in San Diego County.

The new race meetings at Los Alamitos and the start of auxiliary stabling there are part of a changing landscape in Southern California that could take a few years to settle.

Morris envisions a scenario in which Los Alamitos adds more racing dates, possibly in late June 2015, if Santa Anita finds that a marathon six-month meeting is too long.

“We need to see what happens,” Morris said. “I think it’s one of the most exciting things coming new for 2014. Where there is change, there is opportunity.”