12/06/2005 12:00AM

Racing toward Thoroughbreds

Los Alamitos
An artist's rendering of a proposed $50 million expansion that would make Los Alamitos suitable for Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds.

The next six months will be crucial to a bold plan by Los Alamitos racecourse, which is seeking to add Thoroughbred racing to its famous Quarter Horse meeting in affluent Orange County, south of Los Angeles.

The proposal is contingent on many factors, most prominently the closing of Hollywood Park, support from California's Thoroughbred industry, and approval from the cities of Cypress and Los Alamitos.

At stake is the future of year-round racing in Los Angeles at a time when the sport faces difficult questions.

Mike Pegram, the prominent Thoroughbred owner and breeder, has teamed with Ed Allred, the Los Alamitos owner, in a $50 million proposal to expand the track and accommodate Thoroughbred racing as soon as 2009. Pegram and Allred envision Los Alamitos taking Hollywood Park's place on the racing calendar and providing a year-round venue for Thoroughbred stabling.

Churchill Downs Inc. sold Hollywood Park in July, and the new buyer, Bay Meadows Land Co., has made a three-year commitment to race. But Bay Meadows officials have made it clear they will begin the process to develop the land if slot-machine legislation is not passed in California. Without Hollywood Park, the Los Angeles area would have only one major racetrack, Santa Anita - along with the problem of where to house more than 1,000 horses on a year-round basis.

Pegram, who won the 1998 Kentucky Derby with Real Quiet, argues that Los Alamitos can provide a solution.

"There has to be new life bred in California racing, and I think Los Alamitos can do that," Pegram said Tuesday. "We're going into a new market and we'll have hands-on ownership of that racetrack."

Pegram, along with Los Alamitos racing consultant Brad McKinzie, has been meeting with officials from the cities of Cypress and Los Alamitos to discuss expansion plans.

McKinzie, a former general manager at Los Alamitos, said current zoning allows for much of the expansion to go forward without considerable legal obstacles.

"We've got things to do, but we don't see major hurdles," he said.

In coming months, Pegram and McKinzie will begin pitching their plan to California's owners and trainers, most of whom have not seen blueprints for a new Los Alamitos, which has conducted Quarter Horse racing since 1951. Plans call for the expansion of the track from five-eighths of a mile to one mile, construction of a seven-furlong turf course, a refurbishment of the existing grandstand, and the addition of a 3,000-seat grandstand and an outdoor paddock. The backstretch would undergo a much-needed facelift, while a new barn area would be built for Thoroughbreds, with space for 1,000 horses and a training track. The new backstretch would be on land owned by Allred that was formerly used as a golf course.

If the plan succeeds, Los Alamitos would become the first track to offer Thoroughbred racing during the day and Quarter Horse racing at night. Los Alamitos, which leads the nation in Quarter Horse handle, has not conducted a Thoroughbred meeting since the Orange County fair meeting ended in 1991.

"It's hard for me to imagine how it can't help to bring live Thoroughbred racing to not just a new market, but one of the most lucrative markets in the nation," McKinzie said. "It will benefit Santa Anita and Del Mar. We'll reach new fans, and when we're not racing, the new fans will go to Santa Anita or Del Mar."

The proposal to co-exist with Quarter Horses has raised some eyebrows among Thoroughbred officials, and the absence of Hollywood Park would presumably set off a battle for dates among Santa Anita; Oak Tree, which races at Santa Anita; and Del Mar.

But Jack Liebau, the president of Hollywood Park, said he supports the proposal.

"I think it's a fantastic alternative for Southern California," Liebau said. "We have a close relationship with Ed Allred."

Ron Charles, the president of Santa Anita and a horse owner, is more circumspect.

"It's a difficult undertaking," Charles said. "It's not just a cosmetic improvement. I think they have the best of intentions, but there are a lot of questions. If this does move forward, the industry will need a lot more specifics."

Some racing officials have quietly mentioned building a racetrack in Indio, Calif., near Palm Springs, but no formal proposals have been introduced. In addition, Fairplex Park has indicated a desire to expand its five-eighths-mile dirt track and build a turf course on the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona, but continues to seek a financing source.

Earlier this year, McKinzie presented the Los Alamitos expansion plan to the board of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, whose officials have taken a guarded approach.

"It's an option," said TOC president Drew Couto. "We feel [Pegram's] motivation is genuine. The board said it is premature to say we're backing them. We're looking at other options."

In the meantime, Los Alamitos is finishing a fancy set of blueprints, meeting with city officials, and waiting to see what happens with Hollywood Park. If Hollywood Park stays in business past the three-year mark, into 2009, then the Los Alamitos proposal could disappear. Also, a lack of support from the Thoroughbred community could lead Pegram to walk away.

"One thing we didn't want to do is promise something that we can't deliver," Pegram said. "I think we'll be in a position in mid-year that we've jumped through all our hurdles. It's important for the industry to decide whether they want it sooner or later. It may not be there later.

"Everybody has floated this idea of racing in the desert. Who's funding it, and why are we going out there? If someone has a better option than Los Alamitos, let's see it.

"We've laid out our complete package. We're not talking about pipe dreaming, or Indian income, or subsidies, or slot machines. Plain talk is easily understood, and I hope we're talking plain to the industry."