02/21/2014 4:12PM

Santa Anita stakes topic of California Horse Racing Board discussion


ARCADIA, Calif. - Santa Anita received tentative approval from the California Horse Racing Board for its first-ever spring-summer meeting, to run from April 25 to June 29, but not before racing board members expressed concern about the track’s proposed stakes schedule and the absence of three historic races.

Santa Anita will run a 40-day meeting, largely on a four-day per week basis, during a time of year Hollywood Park previously ran. Hollywood Park closed permanently in December.

During the spring-summer meeting, Santa Anita will have a stakes schedule similar Hollywood Park's spring-summer meet, including the California Gold Rush program in late April and Grade 1 races such as the Gamely Stakes, American Oaks, Vanity Stakes, Shoemaker Mile, Triple Bend Handicap, and Hollywood Gold Cup.

The Santa Anita stakes schedule provided to the racing board omitted three $100,000 stakes not run at Hollywood Park in 2013 – the Inglewood Stakes for older horses on turf, Laz Barrera Stakes for 3-year-old sprinters, and the Beverly Hills Handicap for fillies and mares on turf. Those races will lose their Grade 3 status if not run this year.

The racing board approved Santa Anita’s application for the race meeting contingent upon clarification of whether those stakes will be run.

“There are some missing stakes and I’m not happy to see that,” racing board commissioner Madeline Auerbach told Santa Anita officials. “One of the things I’m worried about is California losing graded stakes. I want promises we won’t lose the stakes.”

Officials with Santa Anita and the Thoroughbred Owners of California said discussions would be held about incorporating those stakes into the spring-summer meeting, or at another Southern California track later this year.

“You’ll have my assurance we won’t lose them or we’ll agree that we don’t need to run them,” said TOC president Joe Morris. “I would expect that we will put them into the schedule this year.”

The spring-summer meeting will have twilight racing at 3 p.m. on Fridays, and will focus its marketing on the immediate area near Santa Anita and not greater Los Angeles.

The track has a $6 million marketing budget, the racing board was told. Chairman Chuck Winner and vice-chair Bo Derek said the amount was insufficient.

“With the new dates and the Triple Crown, I’d like to see you spending more on advertising,” Derek said.

Winner praised the track for capital improvements in recent months, but said a greater effort must be made to drive ontrack attendance.

“You’ve done a terrific job of improving the quality of the experience,” Winner told a group of Santa Anita executives. “But it doesn’t do any good if you don’t get the people here to see it. I think, speaking for myself, it’s not our decision, it’s your decision. We’d like to think of you to encourage you to do more and spend more for the outreach.

“Six million is not much when you talk about this market. It’s not a big budget for what you’re trying to accomplish.”

Santa Anita vice-president Tom Ludt said the track had cut back its giveaways in an effort to refocus marketing.

“We’re doing better job of targeting,” he said. “We’re spending a lot more on special events. We’ve gotten away from giveaways because they draw false attendance numbers. We want real attendance numbers.”

At Friday’s meeting, the racing board approved a plan to redirect a portion of revenue from account-wagering sources to offset costs related to offtrack stabling.

Morris said that the offtrack stabling and vanning fund will run a deficit of $1.7 million in 2014, but that a change in the way account-wagering revenue is distributed will offset that loss.

Morris said a long-term solution is under discussion.

On a similar note, the racing board approved a plan to redirect money from takeout to help fund workers' compensation costs. Legislation allowing part of the takeout to pay for such costs expired at the end of 2013.

The current takeout will not be affected by Friday’s actions by the racing board. In 2004, legislation was passed increasing the takeout on exotic wagers by a half-percent, from 20.18 to 20.68 percent, to fund workers’ compensation for horsemen. (The takeout rate for exotic wagers was increased a further 2 to 3 percent in 2010 to fund overnight purses, an action that was met with widespread criticism from horseplayers.)

Friday’s meeting was the first following the appointment of former racetrack executive Rick Baedeker as executive director earlier this month. Baedeker was president of Hollywood Park in the early 2000s, and has an extensive background in racing marketing and as an executive at TVG.

At the start of the meeting, Baedeker made a brief statement urging racing officials and track executives to focus on the growth of the sport in Southern California following the closure of Hollywood Park. He made mention of Del Mar and Santa Anita and the resumption of Thoroughbred racing this summer at Los Alamitos for the first time since 1991.

“I’m hoping we can look at our industry differently,” he said. “In the last five years, we haven’t known what our future holds.

“We know where we are headed. We have two of the most beautiful tracks in the country and arguably in the world. We’ll have Thoroughbred racing in Orange County.

“It’s a good idea for all of us to look at things a little more positively. Otherwise, I’m not sure we can change much.”