Here on the backside of Los Alamitos Race Course, trainers lean against the rail outside Schwanie’s Grill at the Gap, timing their mounts galloping past. The morning air is filled with the sounds of snorting horses and thudding hooves—and a sense of excited change: Among the familiar muscular quarter horses speeding past are longer, leaner thoroughbreds. And around me are some of the top trainers and jockeys on the national racing scene. Thanks to a bold gamble by track owner Ed Allred, Los Alamitos now features daytime thoroughbred racing for the first time in two decades.
Among the trainers here this morning, in jeans and a white cowboy hat, is Art Sherman, who put California Chrome through his paces on this track before Chrome’s victories in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Theirs became this year’s feel-good story of national sports TV and let the Kentucky blue bloods know that Los Alamitos—now nicknamed “The Home of the Chrome”—is a new force on the thoroughbred racing scene.
This unexpected surge of publicity for the Cypress track comes at a time when many are writing the obituary for professional racing, particularly in the Golden State. Because of rising real estate values, California track owners find it more lucrative to close their gates and subdivide the relatively few large parcels left in suburbia. Furthermore, many owners cut back on thoroughbred breeding during the recession, which created a temporary shortage of racehorses, and a grim string of horse injuries at the Del Mar track cast a long shadow.
Track attendance nationwide also is shrinking, but Brad McKinzie, the track’s vice president and general manager, says those figures are deceptive. Overall betting is as lucrative as ever because online betting and satellite facilities “make it easier for fans to play the races without having to come to the track.”
Allred, an owner of Los Alamitos since 1990, concedes that with each of his track’s approximately 200 acres now worth as much as $2 million, his decision to continue racing doesn’t make financial sense. The man loves the sport, though—primarily quarter horses—and has spent $6 million to expand and renovate the track, gambling that the time is right after Bay Meadows track near San Francisco shut down several years ago, and Hollywood Park in Inglewood closed and Fairplex Park in Pomona canceled racing last year.
“If I didn’t have a lot of interest in horseracing,” Allred says, “there’s no way this would be a racetrack.”
In the grandstands at Los Alamitos the day before the Preakness at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course, track exec McKinzie recounts all this with the air of a man sincerely grateful for a gift. “We could have spent a million bucks and never gotten the good will California Chrome has brought us,” he says. “A lot of trainers had a wait-and-see attitude when we opened it up to thoroughbreds in January … now we have a waiting list.”
It’s hard to hear McKinzie over the sound of saws and backhoes preparing the track for July’s Los Alamitos Summer Thoroughbred Festival, just six weeks out. (Additional thoroughbred meetings are scheduled for this month and December.) He points across the neatly graded surface of the racetrack, and says a section has been added to the five-eighths-mile dirt oval to make a longer course for the thoroughbreds. Los Alamitos now boasts the longest stretch run in the U.S.—1,380 feet from the final turn to the finish line. Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, who consulted on the design, now calls it “a big-boy track.”
Although he likes the publicity California Chrome brings to his racecourse, Allred says Los Alamitos proved itself long before this year’s Kentucky Derby. His track has seen quarter horse races with million-dollar purses, and launched the careers of many top thoroughbred trainers, including Hall of Famers D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert.
There are early signs that Allred’s gamble may be working. Baffert already brought 50 horses to train at Los Alamitos. Jeff Bonde, a thoroughbred trainer from Northern California, says he also plans to bring horses to the track. When asked if he’ll race here, Phil Lebherz, another Northern California owner and breeder, simply replies, “Oh my gosh, yes.”
Still, the expansion is a risky bet for Allred, who is gambling that the expensive transformation will make Los Alamitos a destination for California horseracing. Even after its superstar resident faltered at Belmont, Allred raced ahead with his plans. “We’re an important sports venue that’s been overlooked in Orange County,” he says. “The interest is far greater than you think.”
And the interest in thoroughbred racing traditionally has been greater than in quarter horse racing. “Quarter horses are like dragsters,” blasting across short distances sometimes without even going around a turn, says Lebherz. “Thoroughbreds are like Olympic distance runners.”
Allred traces his love of racing to his childhood, when his hard-drinking stepfather’s Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor was a horse owner. The sponsor took young Allred to the races at Santa Anita and, “I became a fan overnight.” Years later, while in law school—he later went to medical school and became a doctor, running a large, privately owned network of family-planning clinics—he visited Los Alamitos, which opened in 1951. “I saw the cowboys there and fell in love with the place,” he recalls. “They’re still real cowboys, not Beverly Hills cowboys, and we’re kind of proud of that.”
Allred says track attendance is nice, but betting is where the money is. “You could build a track 30 miles west of Barstow, and have only 100 people show up, and still do just fine,” he says. Only 14 percent of bets are placed at the track while the rest are wagered off track or online.
Still, Allred believes nothing replaces the experience of being trackside. “If you love horses, if you love horse people, this is where it’s at,” Allred says. McKinzie agrees, adding, “There are few things in the sporting world that can give people as much excitement as a two-dollar win ticket on a racehorse. They scream bloody murder when the horses come down the stretch.” And now, Orange County residents may get to see double-headers of thoroughbred and quarter horse races, not to mention the popular annual wiener dog races.
But can the fading spotlight on California Chrome continue to shine on Los Alamitos Race Course?
I decide to see for myself and head over to the track for the July 3 opening weekend, which includes the $500,000 Los Alamitos Derby. I join a crowd in the paddock eyeing the horses, trading tips, and hoping to pick a winner, and test McKinzie’s theory by putting $2 on a 20-to-1 long shot, Eddie’s First.
It’s hard to find an open seat in the grandstands overlooking the finish line, but I finally settle in, sip a beer, and enjoy the view across the infield with patches of flowers and two small ponds. The San Gabriels shimmer in the distance while, around me, expectant murmurs build as the horses enter the starting gate to my left.
The mile-and-an-eighth race makes full use of the expanded track. The doors fly open and the horses gallop past, swinging around the turn and onto the backstretch. The announcer’s voice builds along with the wild cheers of the crowd. Straining my eyes, I see the horses suddenly appear in a bunch, at the top of the home stretch. Frantic jockeys look for daylight amid pounding hooves and straining muscles. The horses streak past the finish line, bringing screams of joy from some, and groans from others. My own long shot finishes well out of the money.
But the next day I learn opening-day attendance at Los Alamitos was nearly 6,000, compared to 1,500 for weekend night quarter horse racing, and that day’s take was a respectable $4.7 million. That promising start will make a lot of people cheer, and suggests that Allred’s long shot eventually may become a favorite.
Los Alamitos Race Course Timeline
1947 Informal races begin on a 435-acre ranch owned by Frank Vessels Sr., a Kentuckian who moved to California in 1920.
1951 First parimutuel races are an 11-day slog. In near-constant rain, the Vessels family maintains the track; an impressed state horse racing board grants 16 days of racing the following year.
1955 Crowds flock to Los Alamitos to see the state’s first quarter-horse superstar, Go Man Go. The charismatic 2-year-old introduces the sport to a wider audience.
1956 The AA sponsor of Edward C. Allred’s hard-drinking stepfather takes young Ed to the races at Santa Anita, beginning the future track owner’s lifelong love of the sport.
1965 Allred’s foray into breeding produces a filly, Gritch, which produces another filly, Ritch Gritch, which wins the Golden State Derby at 92-1 odds. “That was my start,” says Allred.
1984 Vessels’ widow, Millie, sells the track for $58 million to the owners of Hollywood Park, who later sell the track to harness-racing interests.
1990 Allred joins partner R.D. Hubbard to become 50 percent owners of the track, but their partnership with the harness-racing group isn’t a happy one.
1995 The Los Alamitos Million Futurity, with its million-dollar purse, becomes the richest horse race for any breed in California. The plush, $5 million Vessels Club opens.
1998 Allred becomes sole owner of the track.
2014 Allred opens Los Alamitos to thoroughbred racing and expands the course, a gamble that coincides with California Chrome’s wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
—Martin J. Smith
See a gallery of California Chrome bric-a-brac available at Los Alamitos here
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue.