Del Mar, California
So this is vacation. Or it was when I wrote this last weekend.
Cashing exacta and trifecta tickets on the Woodward while waiting for the Saturday stakes races at Del Mar was a good way to start a week away from Las Vegas.
Inevitably, though, conversations here turned to what we may expect in the fall. A return to Santa Anita looms, picking up where we left off when the turning of a calendar page put a disastrous winter-spring meet out of its misery.
Not ignoring the four horses that died from training accidents here, a carefree summer of safe racing is now in the past like Danny and Sandy were when they got back to Rydell High. (Google “Grease,” kids.)
There is a hangover that bettors will continue to notice. California’s sparse racehorse population remains a worry, albeit quieter than the game of Russian roulette that will no doubt be the dirty-laundry angle trotted out by the bubble-headed bleach blonds on the L.A. evening news. (Google Don Henley, kids.)
After a layover at Los Alamitos, racing will resume at Santa Anita on Friday, Sept. 27. So will some headaches that were put on hold when the winter-spring meet ended June 23.
* Will Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer be welcomed back to Arcadia without the need for a court order? When asked last Saturday where he would put Grade 2 John C. Mabee Stakes winner Vasilika in her next race, Hollendorfer said “at Santa Anita or Kentucky, wherever they let us run.”
* After trainers grew weary with the problems and fled Santa Anita, will they and their horses be back? One thing seems certain: If they return, it will be in a trickle, not en masse.
* Was the track ever fixed? Was it even broken in the first place? In spite of the faith that The Stronach Group exhibited in the condition of the dirt and turf, the consensus among trainers was that most of the 30 horse deaths could be blamed on the impact that the cold, wet winter had. But that was more a learned perception than the result of an exhaustive study. In other words, we shall see.
* Emboldened a heavy-handed governor and a milquetoast California Horse Racing Board, will the review board that carries out pre-race examinations continue to be as hard to read with its inconsistent decisions to scratch horses?
* How will the tone at Santa Anita be different with Stronach COO Tim Ritvo giving up his day-to-day presence and leaving such matters to his newly appointed lieutenant Aidan Butler? When trying to get horsemen based at the track to fill race cards, will Butler and racing secretary Steve Lym speak softly? Or will they do as some horsemen complained last winter when track management was accused of wielding a big stick?
* Second to safety in importance, will bettors come back? There was a 6 percent drop in the average daily handle last winter and spring. On-track betting was down 13 percent per day.
The equine deaths were unquestionably a turn-off. Maybe the safety protocols put in place at Santa Anita in March will take hold the way similar actions seemed to improve things at Aqueduct after a tragic winter in 2012, when 21 horses died. But even before all this drama, most serious bettors whom I know had looked skeptically at southern California racing simply because field sizes have gotten so small.
The racing colony here has always been a figurative island; just consider the next closest state with just as many graded stakes. Here is a hint: It is not in this time zone. Factor in a foal crop that continues to dwindle. Last year the Jockey Club said there were 19,925 racehorses born in the United States. In 1990 it was 40,333. That is a drop of more than 50 percent in 28 years. Just last year it dropped nearly 5 percent.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that is the Breeders’ Cup, which returns to Santa Anita on Nov. 1 and 2 for a record 10th time. But that just as any momentum is built from that, the fall meet will be over. And if there is even the slightest whiff of negative news in the eyes of media that are clueless about whether horses eat hay or play with it, it will linger into next winter.
Maybe what racing needs most right now here on the west coast is the quietest of autumns. Bettors may not welcome it, but if a lack of noise allows southern California to get a desperately needed reset, then maybe it is just as well. And maybe, just maybe, we can enjoy an endless summer.
I promised a list, so here is a list
This week’s Ron Flatter Racing Pod was produced before this column. The host opened his big mouth and said something about having a listicle here, so here it is.
Inspired by BetAmerica Radio Network’s Ed DeRosa and his recent list of his favorite racetracks, here are mine. They do not include places like Oaklawn Park, where I have never been, or Gulfstream Park, Meydan and the new ParisLongchamp, where I have a long list of ideas for improvements. They do include places that I overlooked when I Tweeted a list last month. Herewith, then, are my top 15:
15. Chantilly. An easy train ride north of Paris, this is really just a big slice of horse heaven with a racetrack tucked into it. Quality racing is on display, the course is challenging without being too quirky, and there is no more beautiful snapshot than that of horses racing past the Grandes Écuries (Great Stables) on the backstretch.
14. San Isidro. The old hipódromo is nearly 84 years old, and it shows in some places. But it has good bones, and the entry through a beautiful garden is very welcoming. So are the cheap minimum bets and endless racing that starts at midday and runs late into the night. This is also as much a nod to Buenos Aires, a city that I came to adore five years ago.
13. Pleasanton. I used to go to the Alameda County Fair races nearly every day they were run when I lived in nearby Tracy, Calif. The press box was quite nice, maybe second only to Del Mar. The takeout rate is way too high, but I did not know better when I cut my teeth there in the ’80s. And when I was single, it was a good place to ... well, you know.
12. Tampa Bay Downs. Someone described this as the Monmouth Park of the southeast. Good description. It is an easy facility to navigate, and unlike a particular track in south Florida, horseplayers do not have to use a bloodhound to find betting terminals.
11. Belmont Park. This is as much about the back side. The stable area is like a trip into the country. There is also plenty of room for spectators to maneuver in the grandstand, the paddock and the back yard, especially since the New York Racing Association wisely capped Belmont Stakes crowds at 90,000. Is the racecourse too big for this modern era when seven furlongs seem like a quotidian stretch? Perhaps. But it is New York racing, which has more depth of quality than anywhere in the country.
10. Churchill Downs. Yes, it was more charming when the twin spires were the tallest landmarks on the property. But it is still the home of America’s greatest race, and it still has its tradition. The old grandstand – the part that has not gone condo – is still a throwback to the days when the juleps probably did not taste so much like bourbon and Colgate.
9. Ascot. I have not been there for Royal Ascot – just for a couple British Champions Days. I once stood less than five feet from Her Majesty; I am sure I will remember that far longer than her. The new grandstand may seem impersonal, but it is convenient, and it is not hard to find competing bookmakers who will provide bettors with an honest price that is not subject to the whims of pari-mutuel bettors – or those computer guys who cause that vexing drop in odds at the last click. Oh, yes. The racecourse is exquisite. Give me anyplace that has a Swinley Bottom.
8. Monmouth Park. This place just breathes old-school horse racing. The fact that it is well tended does not hurt. The speed-favoring main track can be a bit much, but the old Parterres are some of the nicest places to spend a day watching those front-runners cash. It also boasts Ron’s (not me), easily the best track kitchen in the country.
7. Compiègne. Historians know this little French town on the Oise River (pronounced “wahz”) as the place where the Germans signed the armistice that ended World War I. Racing fans know the track as one of the most picturesque, low-key settings for country racing. Top trainers and jockeys show up there like guitar pros going into a wine bar on their days off and finding a stage to work on their chops.
6. Santa Anita. The San Gabriel Mountains. The palm trees. The sunshine. And when things are going well, which they historically were before this past year, there is no better big-city setting in the world.
5. Keeneland. The rolling hills of Kentucky, home of horse farms as far as the eyes can see. Oh, yes. There is a beautiful racetrack there, too. The 2015 Breeders’ Cup was a big test to see if a little place could handle a big event. Did it ever. Throw in the fall colors and an underrated selection of Lexington restaurants, and it is no wonder that I am eager to get back there for the 2020 Breeders’ Cup.
4. Saratoga. What was it that Red Smith wrote? “From New York City you drive north for about 175 miles, turn left on Union Avenue and go back 100 years.” It does not hurt that the best racing in America every year is in the summer at Saratoga.
3. Del Mar. Somehow, despite living in California off and on most of my first 33 years, I managed to miss this place until I moved to Las Vegas in 2017. Now I cannot tear myself away. Hey, I am on vacation, and I am at Del Mar.
2. Arlington Park. Simply the finest physical plant built for this sport in the United States. The quality of racing has faded, and there are times that it feels like Chicagoland welcomes thoroughbreds only one day a year. Since Churchill Downs Inc. did not apply for a sports-gambling license for the track, there may be precious few years left to enjoy it.
1. Flemington. This is the finest sports venue that I have ever experienced in person. It is as welcoming to the serious horseplayer as it is to the drunken spectator and everyone in between. There is no better place to watch a big race like the Victoria Derby or the Melbourne Cup than in any of the distinctly different grandstands that are constantly modernized. Despite the complaints of locals, of which I was one for three years, the train ride from Flinders Street Station to the track and back is just fine. In fact, there is no better way to get to and from the big races in the southern spring.
There. I believe I have delivered what I promised. I will see you when I get back to Las Vegas.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. It appears more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. A boutique racing meet and some horse tales fill the RFRP. Longtime turf writer and publicist Jennie Rees talks about the boutique turf meet going on at Kentucky Downs, including Saturday’s Kentucky Turf Cup day. HorseTourneys.com’s Eric Wing discusses handicapping tournaments, futures betting and even racetrack foodies. The RFRP is also available via Apple, Google and Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts.