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Friday, December 20, 2013
A missed opportunity

By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com

Hollywood Park
The end of Hollywood Park could have signaled a new beginning for racing in California.

As soon as it became inevitable that Hollywood Park was going to close the California racing industry had the chance to make lemonade out of lemons. Big changes had to be made to fill the void left by Hollywoods demise and that meant an opportunity for radical overhaul in California, to keep what worked and to fix what didn't. What we are getting is an expanded Santa Anita, an expanded Del Mar and thoroughbreds at Los Alamitos. What we should have gotten was a merger of the southern and northern circuits.

One of racings biggest problems is that there is too much of it, and that leads to the type of small fields and tedium that the customers detest and meets that go on longer than what is optimal. Thats why racing is prospering at the boutique meets -- Keeneland, Del Mar, Saratoga -- and suffering from a malaise most everywhere else. The customer has told the industry exactly what it wants: big fields, low takeouts, good betting opportunities and meets that have a beginning and an end.

And the industry doesn't listen or react. In California, just as they do in so many other places, they grind it out 52 weeks a year, which guarantees a watered-down product with too many bad races and too many small fields.

With the way the 2014 Southern California racing season has been designed the problems will only be exacerbated. Santa Anita and Del Mar are wonderful places, both of them beautiful tracks run by managements that are on the ball and well-intentioned. But the sport doesn't need more Santa Anita and it really doesn't need more Del Mar.

Among the reasons Del Mar is a jewel is that it has traditionally conducted racing over a finite period, just seven weeks. Its short enough that people dont grow tired of it or bored with it. Every day at Del Mar is exciting, which wouldn't be the case if it lasted much longer. To a lesser extent, the same can be said for Santa Anita. Its always been open for about five months a year, which is plenty.

Northern California racing is the poster child for so much of what is wrong with the game.

In 2014, the bulk of the void on the racing schedule that has been created with Hollywoods closing will be filled by Santa Anita and Del Mar. Santa Anita has tacked on three months to its 2014 early meet and Del Mar is going to have a second meet, from Nov. 5 through Dec. 3. Los Alamitos, a quarter horse track, will hold a thoroughbred meet from Dec. 4 through Dec. 21. The traditional short fair meet at Fairplex in September will remain as is.

Thats not a recipe for disaster, and California racing will carry on. Its just that there was a chance here to make the sport all over the state much better, and no one took the ball and ran with it.

Northern California racing is the poster child for so much of what is wrong with the game. Without a sufficient horse population to support year-round racing it has year-round racing. The betting fare at Golden Gate Fields is as unappetizing as it gets. The stereotype is that there are five horses in every race, always a 3-5 favorite, and it is usually ridden by Russell Baze. Thats not too far from the truth.

This is horse racing. They continually offer the customer the type of product they know the customer does not want but refuse to change. No other business does this, and if they do they dont last long.

To create one racing circuit in California would have done wonders for the product and the overall health of the industry. Merging the two horse populations would have meant some of the biggest fields in the sport and would have totally reinvigorated the Northern California scene. It would have meant that Santa Anita could have had a manageable season and that Del Mar wouldn't have had to add an extra month in the fall, something that threatens to spoil the specialness of its primary season.

(If not merging the two circuits, couldn't they at least have just taken one lousy month off, let everyone recharge their batteries and not race at Del Mar or anywhere else in November?)

The horsemen wouldn't like it. Shipping all over the state would be a major imposition and theres nothing an owner or trainer likes better than five-horse fields. But their self-interests shouldn't trump the best interests of the sport.

It would have been unimaginable 30 years ago that someday Hollywood Park would be worth more for its real estate than as a racetrack and that this once thriving racetrack would close. But things change and they evolve. The sport needs to evolve with the times and evolve in ways that will chart the right course for the future. In this case, it didn't happen.