08/02/2008 12:00AM

Unless business improves, purse cuts likely

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DEL MAR, Calif. - A downturn in business through the first two weeks of the Del Mar meeting led to a discussion between track officials and executives of the Thoroughbred Owners of California on Friday regarding a potential purse cut.

Officials emphasized that no decision had been reached prior to the meeting, but that a purse cut was possible for the final 19 days of the 43-day meeting, beginning on Aug. 13. The third condition book, listing likely races from Aug. 13-25, is being finalized this weekend. The meeting ends on Sept. 3.

"I'm trying to avoid a purse cut because of how it affects morale on the circuit," said TOC president Drew Couto. "We want to avoid a purse cut at all costs."

Through Wednesday, ontrack handle was down 7 percent from last year's meeting at this point, while all-sources handle, including intertrack, satellite and account wagering services, was down 1 percent.

The meeting began with a $400,000 surplus in the purse account, carried forward from the 2007 meeting, but that has been erased.

"We were afraid of the economy and we decided we wanted to carry that over," said Couto, whose organization negotiates with racetracks on purse agreements. "We're glad we did. It gives us a bit of a cushion. If things remain down the way they are, we're likely going to have to do something."

Some of the wagering has migrated from ontrack to account wagering services, as bettors stay closer to home to avoid high travel costs, Couto said. To make up that deficit in ontrack business, account wagering handle must increase drastically. Couto said that horsemen receive approximately 8 cents for every dollar wagered on track, but only 4.75 cents for a dollar wagered through the TVG account wagering service.

"It's a huge shift," Couto said. "It's been a shift of higher-yielding dollars to lower-yielding dollars."

Track officials have been disappointed with field sizes. Through Thursday, the 14th day of the meeting, fields have averaged 8.29 runners per races, compared with 8.47 per race for the same time last year. Smaller fields makes for fewer betting opportunities in exotic wagers such as exactas, trifectas, or pick threes.

On Thursday's eight-race program, no race had more than nine runners and four races had six or fewer.

Director of racing Tom Robbins said the smaller field size has been caused by several factors, including tougher rules against steroid use enacted on Friday that has forced some trainers to leave race-ready horses in the stable until the medications clear their systems.

"We didn't know what to expect" regarding steroids, Robbins said. "Some trainers use them more often than others."

In addition, several trainers have said in recent weeks that their stables were hard-hit by injuries at the Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting. Del Mar demands more from the horse population. Santa Anita and Hollywood Park run five days a week, while Del Mar runs six days a week, taking Tuesdays off.

"Six days a week, you have to hit on all the cylinders," Robbins said. "We're dealing with the same Southern California inventory that Santa Anita and Hollywood Park have five days a week."

Robbins is hoping that entries will improve as trainers become more comfortable starting horses on the Polytrack synthetic surface. The surface was criticized last year for fast work times and slow times during races, but has been more uniform this year.

"Will we end up with a field size greater than last year?" Robbins said. "Given what we're facing, I hope we're close, but I'm not we sure can be."

The quality of racing is also a concern. Through Thursday, 31 of the 119 races run at the meeting were for maiden claimers.

A softening market for leisure is not limited to a popular horse racing venue in San Diego. The Pechanga Resort and Casino in nearby Temecula, a Native American casino, announced in late July that it was laying off 400 employees, or 8 percent of its workforce. It was the first layoffs in the 13-year history of the casino, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Candy Lion needs knee surgery

Candy Lion, the impressive winner of a maiden race for 2-year-olds at Hollywood Park on July 13, is out of training with a bone chip in a knee, trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said. Candy Lion will undergo surgery on Sunday or Monday to have the chip removed.

"He'll be out for a while," Hollendorfer said.

Lobo likes first-time starter

Paulo Lobo has never emphasized 2-year-olds in his stable. This year, he is hopeful that the 2-year-old Magic Roberta will turn out to be an important filly. She makes her debut in a $53,000 maiden special weight over 5 1/2 furlongs on Sunday.

"I like her," said Lobo. "She has speed. She breaks well from the gate."

Owned by Old Friends Inc., Magic Roberta is by Elusive Quality and was purchased for $110,000 at the 2007 Keeneland September yearling sale. The sale produced nine of 14 horses entered in the race. Twelve will start.

There are 10 first-time starters in the main body of the field.

Trainer John Shirreffs starts Scarbourough Fair, a Vindication filly owned and bred by Padua Stables. Shirreffs has a decent success rate with first-time starters and 2-year-olds, but said that Scarbourough Fair "will have to step it up."

Trainer Bob Baffert has two runners - Spun Silver, bought for $600,000 at Keeneland last September, and Lu Baton, whom he bred. Lu Baton races for Baffert's wife, Jill.

Eoin Harty starts Moontune Missy, a Forest Wildcat filly bought for $150,000 at Keeneland last September. Moontune Missy drew the rail, which did not please Harty. "She's gotten a lot better since we came to Del Mar," he said. "It looks like a pretty salty race."

California Blaze dies during training

California Blaze, who finished sixth in a division of the Oceanside Stakes on July 16, died of an apparent heart attack while training on Thursday, trainer Darrell Vienna said.

"They think it was a heart attack, but the necropsy is not done," Vienna said. "He had no problems with his limbs."

Owned by breeder Charlotte Wrather, California Blaze, 3, won 2 of 6 starts and $62,660.