Updated on 09/15/2011 2:32PM

Save our stalls and San Luis Rey


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Leigh Ann Howard hopped out of her well-worn golf cart and waved her arm eastward, over an expanse of gently undulating ground laced with wide trails freshly covered with cedar bark.

"Can't you just see how a horse would enjoy a gallop up and down these hills?" she said. "How much a trainer would like the option of coming over here, to give a horse a change in routine and conditioning?" Howard was standing near the highest point of the nearly 300 acres that make up San Luis Rey Downs, the state-sanctioned and -licensed training center located in the North San Diego County town of Bonsall, just west of the I-15 freeway. As manager of the facility for only about a year, Howard has spent most of her time trying to put San Luis Rey Downs on a break-even financial footing to justify its ongoing operation to its owner, Magna Entertainment Corp., also the owner of Santa Anita Park.

However, that has not stopped her from dreaming, and when Howard dreams, she dreams big. "Come on," she said, "now I'll show you where the grass gallops will be."

For more than 30 years, San Luis Rey Downs has played a key role in the health and economic welfare of the California racing business. Today, it is an oasis of relative serenity, especially when compared to the increasingly strangled stable situations at the three major southern racetracks - Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, and Del Mar.

Tomorrow, though, it could be gone, just another hunk of fine land sold and plowed under for residential and commercial development. And that would be a shame, because Southern California needs every first-class training and stabling option possible.

Stabling is free of charge to owners and trainers at Hollywood Park, Santa Anita, Del Mar, and Fairplex Park for long periods of time throughout the racing year. Tracks with the live meet traditionally have offered free stalls as part of the deal. Come run your horses, don't worry about the rent. The tacit understanding was that the horses occupying those free stalls were viable runners who would be generating mutuel handle at some point in the season. Screening out the deadbeats and lay-ups was part of the racing secretary's job.

That was then. Now there are stabling subsidies paid to the tracks that do not operate the live meet, subsidies paid for through a small cut of simulcast betting. As a result, owners and trainers have a choice of free sites offering a range of training surfaces, barn quality, and proximity. As a consequence, a greater proportion of the stalls will be used for rehabs and horses who are not ready to race.

Into this mix wades San Luis Rey Downs, with its one-mile track, its well-tended barns, its official clockers, its state-approved veterinarian, and its proximity to the highly regarded San Luis Rey Downs Equine Clinic. For at least the past year, more starters have come from San Luis Rey Downs to run at Del Mar, Hollywood, or Santa Anita than have come from Fairplex Park in Pomona. And yet, it costs owners and trainer $12 per stall per day to train at San Luis Rey. Is this fair?

The horsemen of San Luis Rey Downs do not think so. For the past several months, they have been making their case before the California Horse Racing Board in an attempt to attain equal funding status with other stabling sites. They have secured a $4 subsidy, from the Vanning and Stabling Fund of the Southern California Intertrack Wagering network, to help defray the $12 daily stall cost, plus starter fees that go directly to owners. But that promise will last only through the end of next April. After that?

"We don't know," said Laura Rosier, vice-president of the San Luis Rey Downs Horsemen's Organization. "We are hoping that the racing board will recognize that San Luis Rey horses are contributing at least as much, if not more, than sites that are 100 percent subsidized." If it were up to a track like Hollywood Park, owned by Churchill Downs Inc., San Luis Rey Downs would not even get the $4 subsidy. To Hollywood management, such a training center is a luxury that should pay its own way.

"I look out at our stable area and see 600 empty stalls," said Hollywood president Rick Baedeker. "It's hard for me to sympathize with someone who makes a conscious choice to train somewhere other than the meet running at the time." That makes sense, but only if the standard is applied across the board. Hollywood Park gets an offsite subsidy during the Santa Anita meet, as does Santa Anita during Hollywood meets and Fairplex for most of the year.

On Friday in Sacramento, when the racing board holds its monthly meeting, Laura Rosier will be front and center once again to make the case for San Luis Rey Downs. Last month, after her appeal for fair treatment, she was told by CHRB chairman Alan Landsburg, "As my mother used to say, sometimes life isn't fair." No one would argue with Landsburg's mother. But it's the job of the CHRB to make sure fairness counts for something.