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Grass Is at Root of Unrest

Hollywood Park's decision to exclude turf racing for the coming meet in order to rebuild the course doesn't sit well with horsemen.

November 02, 2005|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

In an announcement that astounded horsemen, leaving many of them frustrated and angry, Hollywood Park said Tuesday that it would have no grass racing at the meet that opens a week from today.

The focal point of the meet traditionally has been grass racing, including the turf festival over the Thanksgiving weekend, but Hollywood officials said that the rebuilding of the turf course, which began shortly after the first 2005 season ended in July, had been unsatisfactory.

"We could have patched together what we had and moved ahead, but that would not have been the right thing to do," said Jack Liebau, who became president of the track after it was sold earlier this year. "We had to consider, above all else, the safety of the [jockeys] and the horses."

In the history of grass racing at the three major Southern California tracks (Hollywood Park, Santa Anita and Del Mar), there has never been a meet without races on the turf.

Among the races that won't be run are the $500,000 Hollywood Derby, the $500,000 Matriarch and the $400,000 Citation Handicap. Most of the purse money from the grass races will be funneled into daily non-stakes races.

There will be, however, two new dirt stakes -- the $100,000 Real Quiet on Nov. 26 and the $100,000 Sharp Cat on Nov. 27. Those are prep races, the Real Quiet for the Hollywood Futurity and the Sharp Cat for the Hollywood Starlet.

Trainer Bobby Frankel, in reaction typical among horsemen, was infuriated by the announcement.

"What am I supposed to do, go on vacation?" said Frankel, who has divisions of horses in California and New York. "I was planning to personally go back there and spend the meet, but now I don't know what I'm going to do. Not counting the 2-year-olds, about 80% of my stable is grass horses."

In particular, Frankel was pointing Alinghi, an Australian grass champion, for the Matriarch. The turf festival frequently draws horses from other countries, and is a year-end option for horsemen who have run in the Breeders' Cup. Sometimes, Hollywood Park's races have helped settle Eclipse Awards for grass horses.

"We were going to try to win a Grade I race with Alinghi in this country," Frankel said. "She ran poorly in Kentucky, but that was because she didn't like the course and she deserves another chance. This is just another slap in the face to the owners, the guys who put up the money to buy these horses. What do you tell them when something like this happens?

"I don't know what I'll do. There are some races on the turf at Churchill Downs, but you always take the chance on rain there at this time of the year. Calder [in South Florida] and Laurel Park [in Maryland] are also options, but their purses don't compare with what we would have been running for in California."

The problem with the turf course was inherited by Liebau when the Bay Meadows Land Co. in San Mateo bought Hollywood for $257.5 million from Churchill Downs Inc. The deal closed Sept. 23.

"The course did not meet our expectations," Eual G. Wyatt Jr., Hollywood's general manager, said in a prepared statement. "We didn't want to mislead anyone or put any individuals or horses in jeopardy. We're doing what is right under the circumstances and will begin work immediately on installing a new course."

The track was trying to replace the Bermuda grass at Hollywood with a strain of grass that has been used for coastal golf courses. Liebau would not say what the cost was.

"But we got the bill, all right," he said.

Liebau said that the new plan for the grass course would be for it to resemble the surface at Del Mar.

"Long-term, everybody will be better off," he said.

There could be an immediate domino effect, however. Many of the horses that might have run in the Hollywood races will be moving on to grass stakes during Santa Anita's winter meet. Now trainers will have to find races out of town, as Frankel will try to do, or simply continue training their horses for Santa Anita, not an ideal situation.

There was speculation that Golden Gate Fields, in Albany, Calif., could add grass stakes that might accommodate some of the Hollywood Park horses. Peter Tunney, general manager of Golden Gate, could not be reached for comment.

Liebau said that Hollywood Park was still considering installation of Polytrack in place of its dirt course. Polytrack, a synthetic surface, has been popular in England, has been used on a training track at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., and was installed at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky. Polytrack reportedly would cost Hollywood $5 million.

"There's been concern at Turfway about the kickback [of dirt] being greater than anticipated," Liebau said. "But that may be cosmetic more than anything else. If [Polytrack] makes sense, we would go ahead with it."

Bay Meadows Land Co.'s commitment to racing at Hollywood Park is short-term, depending on possible expansion of casino gambling in California. Without racing, the property in Inglewood could be used for commercial purposes.

"Hard to imagine, isn't it?" Liebau said. "Here we are, talking about a new grass and a new dirt track."

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