Not that long ago, in the 1980s, there was a silly, contrived rivalry between California racing and New York racing. Whose horses were better, whose tracks were superior, that kind of thing. It was a counterfeit competition that deservedly went nowhere. These days, California's only goal is survival. Where racing flourished, it now languishes. The late Harry Silbert, long-time agent for Bill Shoemaker, once called California racing "the land of milk and honey." If Silbert could only see it now. The commissioners on the California Horse Racing Board, the state agency that oversees the disarray, could become pallbearers before it's all over.

The seven-member board is not particularly strong. Some of them sit and listen, meeting after meeting, rarely contributing to the dialogue. But the board, like President Obama, is not the scapegoat. Some of the commissioners didn't get to the table until the sport's business model was beyond fixing.


Once proud Santa Anita has been a shell of its heyday, caught in the vortex of a company bankruptcy that threatens to devour all of Frank Stronach's properties. Golden Gate Fields, Santa Anita's sister track to the North, is no better off. There were no races at Golden Gate on March 26, a Thursday, because not enough horses were entered to support a card. The two previous Thursdays, Golden Gate could only round up enough horses for seven-race cards.

Without Golden Gate, there is no suitable venue in Northern California worthy of year-round racing status. Bay Meadows, closed for good last year, is a rubble, its commercial redevelopment in limbo. Bay Meadows' sister track, Hollywood Park, is staggering from one meet to the next, still committed to closing the doors once the economy rights itself and banks start loaning developers money again. It is an irony that the worse the country goes, the better Hollywood's chances of staying open for another meet, another year.

Even Del Mar's boutique meet, run at a state-managed fairgrounds, is not bullet-proof. For the first time in decades, Del Mar will be dark on Mondays, a reflection of the dwindling horse population. More dates at Del Mar are not the answer. It is located in a market that would not be receptive to an extended meet.

Fairplex Park, the bullring in Pomona, which runs an abbreviated fair meet at the end of summer, has circulated grandiose architectural plans over the years, portraying itself as an alternate in Southern California, but its financing has always been laced with more questions than answers. Starting in May, Fairplex will close its stable area for several months, forcing dozens of trainers to look for other training facilities. Fairplex does not have the look of a venue that will ride to the rescue.

If I were the racing board, I would be looking in the direction of Los Alamitos. Privately owned, the little quarter horse track in Orange County operates effectively on a shoestring by night, and has a thriving satellite betting business in the afternoons. Open year-round, it will run 201 days of live racing this year, slightly less than Santa Anita and Hollywood Park combined. Unlike Santa Anita, Hollywood, Del Mar and Golden Gate, Los Alamitos was spared the multi-million-dollar expense of installing a synthetic track. It has no grass course, and the main track is only five-eighths of a mile, but a few years ago the owner of the track, Ed Allred, and the prominent thoroughbred owner, Mike Pegram, were ready to address these shortcomings.

In the early 1980s, when Hollywood Park owned Los Alamitos, I suggested to Howard W. Koch, the movie mogul who was on chairman Marje Everett's board, that Hollywood plow some thoroughbred money into the quarter horse track. I've always been good at spending somebody else's money. "Great idea, kid," Koch said. "But you're a little late. Marje wants that (new) pavilion real bad. That's where all the money's going to go."

One of these days soon, California might be on its hands and knees, knocking at Los Alamitos' door. By rights, Allred and Pegram shouldn't even answer the phone. "We were paying for (the expansion) ourselves," Pegram, writing to one of the trades, said of their 2005 proposal. ". . . Just money out of our pockets. . . Yet our proposal to solve (the problem) by bringing thoroughbred racing to Los Alamitos was met with an indifference that still has me shaking my head."