Quadruple quadfectas? Pass me the aspirin

Message to Santa Anita owner Frank Stronach, who seems to think these magical quadruple quadfectas he talked about during last week’s California Horse Racing Board meeting at Hollywood Park and the free enterprise he covets will be the cure-all for what is a rapidly declining sport in California: Take a look at last Sunday’s card at Hollywood Park if you really want to know why horse racing is struggling.

There was an average of six horses per race for the nine-race card, including five-horse fields in the first two races and a four-horse lineup in the third. The largest field of the day? Five races had seven-horse fields. And this was a Sunday program, allegedly one of the premier days of the week.

What is so difficult to understand about this: Nobody wants to go to the track and bet on ridiculously short fields. There’s absolutely no value. The declining purse sizes are driving owners out of the game and until a solution is found for the problem, horse racing is going to continue to decline. It’s really a simple formula — lower purses are leading to fewer owners, which equates to smaller fields and a lot less handle.

“I’ve never seen it as bad as it is right now,” said Dr. Jack Robbins, the executive president and founding director of an Oak Tree Racing Association that was kicked in the gut by Stronach recently when he voided a lease that was scheduled to run through 2016. Stronach agreed to let Oak Tree race at Santa Anita one more year this fall, but reiterated at the CHRB meeting that it would be the final season because Santa Anita doesn’t want any tenants in its house.

Perhaps Stronach should worry more about the real problem — shrinking purse sizes — and not who’s renting his house.

“I don’t know where the horses are going to come from,” Robbins said. “It’s a whole lot different than days gone by. But we’ve got to face it. The economy is different, everything is different. The young people don’t seem to like the game like we used to when we were that age. Kids like action and they don’t want to wait 30 minutes (between races). They don’t understand the betting, it confuses them to some extent, the different exotics that they’ve got.”

Robbins is so pessimistic that he doesn’t even foresee larger purses saving the game.

“I don’t think that’s the savior,” he said. “Racing is in trouble all over the country. The breeders in Kentucky, the race tracks in New York and Chicago. I don’t know the answer.”

Neither do Stronach and his soldiers at Magna.

But despite his pessimism, Robbins isn’t part of the brigade that predicts the sport will cease to exist in California within five years.

“I’m not that pessimistic, but I don’t know what’s going to save it,” he said.

One of Robbins’ sons, Donald, used to run the show at Hollywood Park in the 1990s before leaving the sport in what has to rank as one of the all-time shrewdest moves in many years.

“He knew,” Robbins said of his son. “He could see the light coming. He knew that this thing was going downhill.”

Of course, Stronach could do us all a favor and just sell Santa Anita. How about it Frank? Time to cut your losses and run?

“I want to avoid that, because if I sell the thing, then it’s wasted,” Stronach told Pasadena Star-News reporter Brenda Gazzar after the June 22 CHRB meeting. “I really believe that if you work together, you can make a viable racetrack with a fair return.”

Even if he can’t change the current structure of the sport?

“I’m optimistic, not negative, with good common sense — there are thousands of jobs involved — I’m optimistic that changes will be made.”

Southern California fans and members of the CHRB are still waiting to hear what changes he has in store besides the quadruple quadfectas.

Oak Tree will return to Santa Anita for 2010

Who would have ever thought that thoroughbred owner Mace Siegel, who operates Jay Em Ess Racing Stable with his daughter Samantha, would help broker a deal to keep the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita in 2010?

That’s actually what happened Tuesday after Santa Anita owner Frank Stronach spent the better part of two hours telling California Horse Racing Board members during their June meeting at Hollywood Park that his company, Magna International Developments, had decided to wash its hands clean of the Oak Tree Racing Association.

“We don’t want a tenant in our house,” was Stronach’s stance. He explained that continuing to host the Oak Tree meet was not economically viable for his company.

Siegel eventually got up and proposed that Santa Anita host the Oak Tree meet for one more year, that he felt there was a miscommunication between Stronach and the Oak Tree Racing Association.

So, after Stronach agreed that he would take on Oak Tree as a tenant for 2010 under the conditions of the lease that was terminated in May, five members of the Oak Tree board huddled and agreed to the arrangement.

Stronach made it clear however that he does not want Santa Anita to host Oak Tree beyond this year, though CHRB chairman Keith Brackpool urged both parties to keep an open mind about the future.

During the meeting, CHRB commissioner Bo Derek blamed Stronach for blowing the opportunity for California to host the Breeders’ Cup for perhaps five years running beginning in 2011. The Breeders’ Cup announced earlier this month that Churchill Downs will host the event next year as well as this year’s running, partly as a result of the unresolved Oak Tree issue.

Stronach tried to turn it around on the CHRB, telling the commissioners it was their decision that led to Arcadia losing the Breeders’ Cup. How he arrived at that conclusion is anyone’s guess. He’s the one who terminated Oak Tree’s lease and led uneasy Breeders’ Cup officials to take the safe route and choose Churchill Downs.

It was typical Stronach on Tuesday, running the gamut during questioning by the board, moving from one topic to another without really addressing the questions. He said he’ll be in Southern California for the next few days and is scheduled to meet with horsemen sometime Wednesday.

That should be entertaining.

Stronach still has this crazy notion that he should be able to race whenever he wants, regardless if Hollywood Park or Del Mar are in season. It doesn’t make any sense. The fields are too short to begin with. Imagine if Hollywood Park and Santa Anita were both running today. What we’d have are a ton of match races in $8,000 claiming races and two- or three-horse fields in maiden claimers.

Quick. Where do I sign up for that?

Stronach, CHRB ready for pow wow

How Frank Stronach handles his appearance before the California Horse Racing Board today to talk about his vision for the future of racing in California could go a long way in determining his legacy in the sport.

If Stronach sold Santa Anita and got out of the game today, his legacy would be that of a failed race track operator. He talks about the sport being broken, but he is a major reason why the game is broken. Decisions like the one to terminate his lease with the Oak Tree Racing Association, which potentially cost Santa Anita a slew of upcoming Breeders’ Cups, are more the rule rather than the exception.

Stronach has gone on record as saying he feels tracks should be able to open and race any time they like without the interference of the CHRB doling out racing dates each year. I have a feeling if Stronach had his way, he’d operate Santa Anita much like Los Alamitos and run year-round. Of course, with shrinking purses and smaller field sizes, the question is how many horsemen and fans would attend?

If Stronach is smart, he won’t show up at Hollywood Park making demands and saying it’s his way or the highway. This is the time when he needs to sound a conciliatory tone and try to work with other racing officials. He should raise his concerns and give his ideas about how to fix things but avoid issuing ultimatums.

Which Stronach will appear at Hollywood Park? It’s anybody’s guess. We’re not even sure if he’ll reveal today what type of racing surface will be installed at Santa Anita in time for the 2010-11 meet. Oak Tree is still salvagable, but don’t count on that happening. Hollywood Park is likely to host the Oak Tree meet this fall.

Today’s meeting, with Stronach listed as No. 15 on a 17-item agenda, promises to be an interesting one. If you have an interest in the sport, you’ll want to tune in to the CHRB’s webcast, which begins at 9:30 a.m. You can find the link at www.chrb.ca.gov.

Have a seat and get comfortable. This meeting, originally scheduled for Thursday, was moved forward a few weeks ago to a non-racing day. Sound thinking there. Otherwise, the horses might be loading into the gate for the first race about the same time the meeting is really getting lively.

Stats and figures heading into today’s Vanity Handicap

Some facts and figures about today’s Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park, in which Zenyatta will attempt to win a record 17th consecutive race. Citation, Mister Frisky and Cigar failed to win No. 17, but the unbeaten Zenyatta is 1-5 on the morning line to reach the elusive plateau:

* Gamely is the only distaffer to have carried more weight to victory in the Vanity than the 129 pounds Zenyatta carried in 2009. Gamely and Silver Spoon both carted 130 pounds when they won the stake. Cascapedia carried 129 when she won in 1977.

* The last horse to carry 130 pounds to victory at Hollywood Park was the great John Henry when he won the 1981 Hollywood Invitational Turf, a race now known as the Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap.

* Zenyatta’s average margin of victory has been slightly better than two lengths. Her largest victory came by 4 1/2 lengths in the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park in 2008. Her slimmest margin of victory was a head in last summer’s Clement L. Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar.

* Zenyatta is 6 for 6 at Hollywood Park, 6-0 at Santa Anita, and 2-0 at both Del Mar and Oaklawn Park.

* The 6-year-old daughter of Street Cry will surpass the $6 million mark with a victory today. She’s closing in on the all-time female earnings record of $6,334,296 held by Ouija Board, who was retired in 2006 after a third-place finish in the Japan Cup.

* Zenyatta can become only the fourth filly or mare to win the Santa Margarita at Santa Anita, the Apple Blossom and the Vanity in the same year, joining 2002 Horse of the Year Azeri, Bayakoa (1989) and Paseana (1992).

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Rachel scores powerful victory in Fleur de Lis

Rachel Alexandra is back, romping to a 10 1/2-length victory in the $214,000 Grade 2 Fleur de Lis Handicap at Churchill Downs against four rivals. She was clocked in 1:48.78 for the 1 1/8 miles over the main track, scoring her fourth victory in seven starts at Churchill.

Here’s what the principles had to say afterward:

Calvin Borel, jockey: “She’s just getting back. You have to give her a chance. She’s a filly and she did the impossible when she was a 3-year-old. I think you’ll see a great future now. She did everything right today. (Trainer) Steve (Asmussen) told me just to run my race and see where we’re at. She showed up today. She felt the same. I just don’t think she was ready before. Steve knows what he’s doing. She showed up today. She was perfect and we couldn’t ask for more.”

Steve Asmussen, trainer: “I’m very proud for everybody involved that she won. We are all grateful that (co-owner) Mr. (Jess) Jackson and (Jackson’s wife) Barbara (Banke) put a Horse of the Year back in training and take all the advice or criticism or whatever, but she is a tremendously sound filly. She’s a machine and she ran a great race today, and hopefully this is a step in the right direction for the rest of the year. It’s an honor to train a horse like her. We will take her back to the barn and there will be a lot of petting her, and peppermints, and loving on her.”

Rachel Alexandra, a 4-year-old daughter of Medaglia d’Oro, has now won 12 of 17 starts with four seconds for earnings of $3,206,730.

Racing’s other big female superstar, Zenyatta, goes for a record 17th consecutive victory in unrestricted races Sunday when she faces seven rivals in the $250,000 Grade 1 Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park. She’s also shooting for an unprecedented third victory in the Vanity.

Rachel Alexandra will race next in Fleur de Lis at Churchill Downs

Here is the statement released this morning by Jess Jackson, co-owner of reigning Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra:

“Rachel Alexandra continues to turn in strong works; therefore the reigning Horse of the Year will start this Saturday, June 12, 2010 in the FleurDe Lis (GII) at Churchill Downs.

“As long as she continues to progress, we intend to race her with the expectation that she will obtain her fitness level of last year. Our ultimate goal and hope is to enter the Breeders Cup in November.”

Jess Jackson

No word on whether Calvin Borel will retain the mount on the 4-year-old Medaglia d’Oro filly. We’ll find out later this afternoon when entries are drawn for a race that is expected to draw few entries.

Big weekend for Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra

We know where the undefeated Zenyatta will be racing this weekend. She’ll be trying to break the record of 16 consecutive victories in unrestricted races that she shares with Citation, Mister Frisky and Cigar when she runs in Sunday’s $250,000 Grade 1 Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park. She would become the first three-time winner of the stake if she gets the job done while carrying a career high-tying 129 pounds. She also carried 129 pounds in last year’s Vanity.

Meanwhile, Jess Jackson is hemming and hawing about where reigning Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra will race on Saturday. She’s 0 for 2 this year after winning all eight of her starts in 2009 and hasn’t looked like the same horse that beat the boys in the Preakness, Haskell and Woodward a year ago. The options for her next race include the Stephen Foster Handicap or Fleur de Lis at Churchill Downs, the Ogden Phipps at Belmont Park or the Obeah at Delaware Park. The last three are races for fillies and mares, but she would face males in the Stephen Foster.

If Jackson needs any advice it would be to avoid the Foster. Rachel Alexandra needs to win a race and regain her confidence before taking on males again. The guess here is that Jackson will announce soon that his standout 4-year-old filly will race in the Fleur de Lis, which would be her seventh start at Churchill. She’s won three times and finished second three times at the storied track.

On Sunday, Rachel Alexandra worked four furlongs in 49.40 seconds at Churchill with Shaun Bridgmohan in the saddle. Which raises another question. Who will ride Rachel Alexandra this weekend — Bridgmohan or Calvin Borel? While trainer Steve Asmussen did not blame Borel for the Medaglia d’Oro filly’s upset loss to Unrivaled Belle in the La Troienne at Churchill on April 30, Jackson was not as forgiving with his post-race comments. It wouldn’t be a major surprise if a jockey change is imminent.

Meanwhile, the record-setting Zenyatta is poised for the Vanity after breezing six furlongs in 1:15.20 on Monday morning at Hollywood Park with regular jockey Mike Smith in the saddle. Trainer John Shirreffs told the Daily Racing Form that he was pleased with the workout after the daughter of Street Cry finished the drill by traveling the final three furlongs in 36 seconds.

Zenyatta is expected to face four or five rivals in the Vanity, including the talented St. Trinians, who will get nine pounds from the two-time Eclipse Award winner as top older female. St. Trinians has won four of five starts in the U.S., including the Grade 2 Santa Maria Handicap on Feb. 13 at Santa Anita.

Racing numbers continue to decline across the nation

The financial indicators for thoroughbred racing in the United States continue to slump, according to numbers released by Equibase this week.

Wagering on races in the U.S. fell 8.27 percent in May compared to May 2009. The size of purses dipped 4.82 percent and the number of U.S. race days decreased by 5.85 percent.

For the first five months of 2010, compared to the first five months of last year, wagering in this country fell 8.37 percent, purses dropped 6.68 percent and the number of racing days fell 6.84 percent.

I don’t have a problem with the falloff in the number of racing days. I’ve maintained for a long time now that there’s too much racing and it’s diluting the product. But we should be very concerned about the continued drop in handle and purse sizes.

I believe handle continues to fall because too many times the product is weak. Fans don’t want to take their hard-earned money out to the race track and bet on five, six and seven-horse fields. There is just no value.

The sport is not attracting new owners because the purses continue to fall. With rising training costs and declining purses, why would anyone want to get into the game except to use as a tax write-off?