By T. D. Thornton
The elimination of Hollywood Park from the southern California racing circuit has resulted in the shifting of some noteworthy stakes races over the past two years, but the most important change for 2016 may imperil a pair of Grade I races for 2-year-olds that have been run for decades in late December.
Brad McKinzie, the general manager of Los Alamitos Race Course, put the industry on notice at Thursday’s California Horse Racing Board meeting that his track does not intend to run the GI Los Alamitos Futurity or the GI Starlet S. next year.
The chief reason is financial, McKinzie said. He explained that Los Alamitos ambitiously picked up the two year-end races for juveniles–arguably the two most prominent national races for 2-year-olds after the Breeders’ Cup has been run–in 2014 with the intent of making them the centerpiece races of the three-week meet. But betting handle couldn’t match the purse payouts, and with Los Alamitos running even fewer dates in 2016, keeping those races on the schedule would be too much of a financial burden.
“The  stakes schedule and our overnight purse schedule is based upon the handles that we generated last year, McKinzie said. “Those are real numbers. We were $600,000 overpaid last year and we won’t get a dime of it back. To say that we over-reached on our stakes schedule last winter would be putting it mildly.”
McKinzie continued: “We’re having to live within our means for this winter, which is a three-week meet. Next year we have two weeks…We informed the industry, the Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC), right after the dates were awarded that there is just no way, with a two-week meet, that Los Alamitos can afford to conduct the Starlet and the Los Alamitos Futurity and do them justice and keep them Grade I events. Someone in this industry, I think, needs to pick up these two races, which are important national races, and hopefully do more with them than we’re able to do right now.”
CHRB chairman Chuck Winner countered with a rhetorical question. “Someone? There are only two ‘someones,’” Winner asked, referring to Santa Anita and Del Mar as the only other logical entities who might opt to run the pair of Grade I races.
“Whichever one does it, it’s fine with me,” McKinzie said.
The Futurity originated as the Hollywood Futurity in 1981 and was rebranded as the CashCall Futurity in 2007. Last year’s version, the first at Los Alamitos, was a corker of a $500,000 race: Dortmund (Big Brown) nipped Firing Line (Line of David) and Mr. Z (Malibu Moon) in a three-way photo finish. Half a year later, Firing Line and Dortmund ran second and third in the GI Kentucky Derby.
The 2014 edition of the $350,000 Starlet was no slouch either: Take Charge Brandi (Giant’s Causeway), the upset winner of the 2014 GI BC Juvenile Fillies, clinched the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old filly with a win at Los Alamitos.
The Futurity ($350,000) and Starlet ($300,000) remain on the Los Alamitos schedule this year after having their purses reduced from 2014.
McKinzie said the 2016 stakes schedule at Los Alamitos would be based around bringing back several California-bred stakes that were cut from the lineup this year, and that those races will be shored up by a version of the Bayakoa H., which used to be run for older fillies and mares at Hollywood in December.
Prior to McKinzie’s announcement, commissioner Madeline Auerbach had voiced strong opinions about the erosion of southern California’s overall graded stakes schedule.
“I understand that we played havoc with the circuit with dates. I get it,” Auerbach said. “And I understand that when we do that, we affect the purse accounts and we affect the ability of the racing associations to provide the stakes. My concern is for California… I am concerned about the graded stakes that we lose, that once we’ve lost them for two years they can’t come back….I want to make sure everybody in the room understands that unless we find a way to present these stakes, we lose status, we lose ground, and there is no way to make it up again.”
At the time, Auerbach’s remarks had been directed at Santa Anita management, dovetailing into a question about what it intended to do with Hollywood’s former GI American Oaks Invitational S. Santa Anita had run that race in the early summer in 2014 and 2015, but vice president of racing Rick Hammerle, said the track is proposing running it much deeper in the season in 2016.
“Since New York hit the jackpot, so to speak, with their slot machine money, they’ve been able to schedule many races that have influenced [competing] races across the country,” Hammerle said. “This race was one of them. They have a million-dollar race on Fourth of July weekend, [the GI Belmont Oaks Invitational S.], for the same condition. Last year we tried to schedule the American Oaks as a semi-prep for that race, and when you’re trying to schedule major races as preps for other races across the country, sometimes it doesn’t work.”
Hammerle said moving the American Oaks earlier on the calendar didn’t make sense, because 3-year-old fillies aren’t quite ready to run 1 ¼ miles early in the season. So after consulting with prominent trainers like Christophe Clement and Chad Brown, who are known for conditioning top female turfers, Santa Anita is now considering running its Oaks either on opening day or weekend of the 2016 December meet.
“That race is not going away. It has no intentions of going away. There’s no chance we’re going to give this race up,” Hammerle said.
Auerbach said she appreciated the verbal commitment, but twice asked Santa Anita to put the plans for the American Oaks in writing.
Mike Pegram, representing the TOC, said, “We agree with Madeline, that we hate to give up any stakes races. But Rick made a very good case why they dropped the stakes they did; why they moved the American Oaks. I think running the numbers, Santa Anita is still going to be in an overpaid situation for the two meets combined. We approved. We signed off on the stakes schedule, with reluctance, but understanding their position with the way things sequenced this year, so we support the stakes schedule.” @thorntontd