05/20/2001 11:00PM

No fix in sight for shortage of horses


SAN MATEO, Calif. - Short fields have become common in northern California, and as trainers continue to move their horses elsewhere, the likelihood grows that the number of races run in the region, particularly at Bay Meadows, might have to be reduced.

The strain on the area's horse population intensified beginning on May 9, with Bay Meadows scheduled to conduct racing on 22 of 26 days. And it may get worse as the track faces head-to-head competition for horses with the San Joaquin County Fair at Stockton, Calif., beginning June 13.

Several trainers shipped out horses before the meet began. Last week, trainer Kevin Lewis moved his 12-horse stable from Bay Meadows to Southern California. And earlier this week, Jeff Bonde revealed that he will send 20 of his horses to Monmouth Park in New Jersey next week.

On top of all that, the usual influx of trainers from Arizona has not taken place this year.

Meanwhile, the entry box doesn't fill. On Wednesday's eight-race card, before scratches, there were two seven-horse fields, two six-horse fields, and two five-horse fields. Thursday's card began with four six-horse fields and a five-horse field.

Departing trainers give a variety of reasons for leaving, among them:

* Bigger purses offered at other tracks, some of which are subsidized by legalized slot machines

* The high cost of workmen's compensation in California

* The many backstretch inspections in the past year by labor officials, who have handed out heavy fines for employment violations. The inspections are believed to be a major reason many Arizona trainers are staying away this year.

"Things don't look very promising," Bay Meadows racing secretary Greg Brent said this week. "We have made trips out of state trying to encourage trainers to come here, and I was optimistic after a recent trip to Arizona. Several trainers indicated they were coming, but they've subsequently changed their minds from what I've heard lately."

Brent worries that soon he might not be able to continue filling eight-race cards Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and nine- or 10-race cards Saturdays and Sundays.

"We've had some close calls," Brent said. "I really didn't think we were going to fill Saturday [May 12], but the horsemen have been great."

Bonde said he is sending horses to New Jersey because he has many 2-year-olds and cannot find races to run them in here. Bay Meadows has carded few 2-year-old races because it's early in the year and other trainers have 2-year-olds who are not yet ready to race.

"I've got about 20 2-year-olds here," Bonde said. "When you can't run them, the expenses go on. It's not going to get any better during the fairs this summer."

Bonde plans to divide his stable for three months, spending time at both Bay Meadows and Monmouth, then return here fulltime in September.

"I'm trying to make sure I make the same income this year as last year," he said. "The first quarter was not the same, and I have had a lot of horses sitting in the barn. I think I've got some pretty good 2-year-olds, and I don't want to waste them."

Given the horse shortage, it might seem odd for Bay Meadows to run six days a week two of the last three weeks in May. Management's answer is that its policy, supported by the California Horse Racing Board, is to race in northern California the same days as there is racing in Southern California, because tracks at both locations then benefit from simulcast handle.

But John Harris, a former member of the track's board of directors and a member of the California Horse Racing Board, said there is no requirement that Bay Meadows race just because Hollywood Park is racing.

"I tried to get them to rethink it," Harris said, "but no one seemed to pick up the bit. But it is a complicated puzzle. The track does make a little money every day it runs, and the unions would object to any reduction in the number of days.

The CHRB is scheduled Tuesday to start considering racing dates in 2002.

"I think we really need to reconsider our dates policy," Harris said. "Hopefully, all parties, the horsemen, tracks and board members, will get together and rethink it."