DEL MAR — A letter from the secretary of the California Horse Racing Board is severely critical of Hollywood Park's operation of the current harness racing meeting at Los Alamitos, where business has been off appreciably all season.
The letter was written a week ago by Len Foote and addressed to Don Robbins, general manager of Hollywood Park.
The track has also been under fire from harness horsemen, who recently asked the board to return some of their racing dates from Los Alamitos to Hollywood. The horsemen, disappointed by a daily average handle of less than $600,000 at Los Alamitos, have also hired Maxwell Blecher, an attorney who represented the Coliseum Commission in the Raiders' antitrust suit against the National Football League, and have indicated they may take legal action against Hollywood Park.
The horsemen say that Hollywood Park, which is also currently running a quarter-horse meeting at its main plant in Inglewood, has neglected to promote the harness game.
In the letter to Robbins, which was made available to The Times by a non-board source, Foote made these points:
--Patrons at Los Alamitos have suffered because of understaffing in the pari-mutuel department. As a result, there have been long lines at betting windows.
--Security in the stable area is "poor." Foote wrote that Los Alamitos has only 16 security guards on the backstretch for 24-hour coverage seven days a week, "which is below the level of other California tracks and has resulted in several incidents of improper access to the stable area."
--Los Alamitos has been remiss in publicizing the season, which opened with daytime and twilight racing in early August and switched to night cards this week. "The public and media awareness of the progress of the racing meeting is absent from notice," Foote wrote. "Press coverage seems accidental."
In the letter, Foote also commented about low morale among employees at Los Alamitos, said that the poor season has resulted in several sizable stables shipping their horses out of California, pointed out that daily purses have been averaging about $38,000--$12,000 less per day than Hollywood projected at the start of the season, and said that inoperable track equipment had not been replaced.
Hollywood Park bought Los Alamitos a couple of years ago, then this year switched quarter-horse racing from the Orange County facility to Hollywood. Hollywood's first of two thoroughbred meetings this year showed substantial declines in attendance and betting.
Track officials and Hollywood shareholders have said that it will be necessary to sell a substantial part of the acreage at Los Alamitos to offset debts caused by an outlay of more than $80 million for the purchase of Los Alamitos and the building of a six-story pavilion at Hollywood.
Both Robbins and Neil Papiano, Hollywood Park's chief counsel, said Wednesday that they hadn't seen Foote's letter. Contacted at his office in Sacramento, Foote confirmed some of the contents of the letter as obtained by The Times and said he had sent the letter to Robbins last week but couldn't explain why the Hollywood general manager hadn't received it.
"I can't believe that Len would have sent out such a letter without talking to us first," Papiano said. "This gripes the hell out of me, the way we're learning about this letter."
Papiano defended the security force at Los Alamitos.
"(Foote) is wrong about those numbers (of security guards)," Papiano said. "We can't tell you what the numbers are, but security is one area where we're ahead of other tracks, like Santa Anita, by a mile. We have a private security firm, our own people and undercover people, and we've gotten exclusions (ejection of bookmakers, unlicensed participants and other unwanted spectators) by the 50s."
Responding to some of these criticisms, Robbins said: "It's not true that we don't have enough mutuel clerks. One clerk for every 55-60 patrons would be a good ratio and we've been averaging one clerk for every 46 people at Los Alamitos.
"While we haven't been advertising in the main edition of The Los Angeles Times, we've been carrying ads in the Orange County edition, where we believe our biggest source of fans is. Not only that, we've been advertising in two newspapers we've never used before--the Daily News and the Pasadena Star News.
"Regarding faulty equipment, we had a problem with the race timer the first 2 1/2 weeks of the season and have since changed companies. Now the timer works perfectly.
"As for the same company running competing meetings, Hollywood Park's purchase of Los Alamitos was definitely in the best interest of racing. If we had not made the purchase, there was some question whether night racing in Southern California would even be in business."
Robbins said that in response to a recent question from Foote about security, he said the only cutback had been the closing of the east gate at Los Alamitos.
"I didn't expect, or ask for, a response to my letter," Foote said Wednesday. "Without going into detail, none of the items in the letter are actionable (by the board) by themselves."
In the letter, Foote said that he had similar concerns about Hollywood's operation of the quarter-horse meeting but refrained from being as critical because it was the track's first season for that breed there.
Foote's letter also questioned whether "competing tracks (Los Alamitos and Hollywood Park) should be operated by the same licensee. It may not be in the best interests of the horse racing industry."
Ben Felton, chairman of the racing board, declined to comment about Foote's letter when contacted Wednesday.