A new chapter in California harness racing history is about to be written when Watch and Wager LLC kicks off its inaugural meeting at Cal Expo on Friday, November 2.
Looking back over the last 40 years of the sport in California and how harness racing has come close to all but disappearing on more than one occasion, the fact that it is still standing is a minor miracle in itself.
I was first introduced to harness racing in 1972 at Hollywood Park, some three years after discovering thoroughbred racing after coming upon Santa Anita and Kentucky Derby winner Majestic Prince on television.
By now I was now working at the Los Angeles office of Daily Racing Form and one of the perks of the job was free passes to the racetrack. Having never seen harness racing in person, I headed out to Inglewood to watch the trotters and pacers do their thing.
As luck would have it, I cashed my first bet on a horse named Architect and I was hooked. I became a regular at Hollywood Park harness and six years later switched from the office to the field to be the Daily Racing Trackman.
Over those 40 years I have seen some tremendous highs and unbelievable lows in California harness racing while documenting these happenings in print. The thing that stands out the most is the determination of the horsemen even in the direst of times.
Gene Vallandingham, who has over 2,900 victories to his credit with 22 million dollars earnings, is still plying his trade as one of the youngest 72-year-olds you’re every likely to meet and he picks up the story.
“I originally came to California in 1958 and by the early 70s harness racing was extremely popular here,” Gene said. “There was a terrific meeting at Hollywood Park from late summer through the fall, with races like the Great Western Pace and some of the best horses and drivers in the country.
“There was regularly 15,000 to 20,000 people coming out on the weekends, and of course, this was before simulcasting. We also had a lot of the old-school originals driving and training here, like Joe O’Brien, Ken Cartnal, Jim Dennis and Joe Lighthill, along with guys like John Campell, who would come out from the East.”
If you go back those 40 years, you’ll find there was virtually a year-round calendar for Vallandingham to ply his trade. “There was Hollywood Park, a spring meeting at Los Alamitos and then meetings between Bay Meadows and Golden Gate. It was a tremendous circuit.”
According to Gene, the first sign that trouble may be ahead for harness racing in California came in 1983, when Marje Everett converted Hollywood Park from a mile to a mile and an eighth racetrack for the inaugural Breeders Cup. Logistically, this made a mile harness race impossible.
“Marje had bought Los Alamitos by then and we were told we would be moving over there, but the purses would remain the same for the time being,” Vallandingham recalled. “We were disappointed to lose Hollywood Park, but racing the five-eighths at Los Al was exciting and we still had a pretty decent circuit.”
By 1993, however, what was at first a warning sign became a four-alarm fire bell when things collapsed and there was only three and a half-months of trotting and pacing in the Golden State, with even that lone meeting at Los Alamitos being put together at the last minute as the result of the newly-formed Premier Racing Association.
Things did not look good, even for the most optimistic of harness horsemen. “I didn’t want to do it, but I actually went back to Chicago for the summer of 1994,” Gene explained. “Times were tough then.”
It was out of this extremely trying period for harness racing in California that Capitol Racing was born, and it proved to be the spark that would eventually bring the sport back to viability.
Alan Horowitz, who has been a harness owner and breeder for many decades and is currently the Executive Director of the California Harness Horsemen’s Association, continues the tale.
“It was the early 1995 and the prior year there had been less than four months of racing in the state, because there was no meet at Cal Expo,” Horowitz explained. “We sat around the board of the CHHA and realized we had pretty much run out of operators and we had to help ourselves.
“Premier had done a great job of running a meet at Los Alamitos, but we needed some dates at Cal Expo to keep things going. That’s how Capitol Racing came about.”
With Horowitz as general manager, at first it was baby steps with just an eight-week meet with two programs a week in the fall of 1995. It steadily grew, however, and within a couple of years there was 40 weeks of harness racing in California between the north and south.
“There was no doubt Cal Expo was the junior circuit to Los Alamitos, but it worked out nicely,” Horowitz said. “We actually surprised ourselves how well things went under some very trying conditions, including the weather in Sacramento in the fall and winter.
“The key was that we had the most loyal and supportive horsemen you could ever hope for and we had a tremendous and devoted staff that came up with some very creative ways to help the meeting.”
One of those innovations was the Bal-Cal, a pick-four wager that combined two races from Cal Expo and a pair from Balmoral Park in Chicago that was heavily promoted on both fronts and caught the interest of bettors across the country.
“We were also fortunate that we came along at a time when we got a real nice bump from both the in-state and out-of-state simulcasting,” Alan continued. “It was exploding and we were right there.”
It was in 2001 that the Los Alamitos/Cal Expo circuit came to a end with quarter horse racing being implemented on a year-round basis at Los Al, but by then Capitol Racing was well established and picked up the baton and ran with it.
“It’s kind of hard to believe now, but we actually had enough horses to run five days a week in 2001 from January through May. We wanted to push the envelope.”
Capitol ran harness racing at Cal Expo until the summer of 2005, when Sacramento Harness took over the operation for three years, then the State Fair ran the show until the session that concluded this past June.
Now it’s time for Watch and Wager LLC to step to the plate with Ben Kenney and Chris Schick at the reins. “I’m not a betting man,” Alan said, “but if I was I would bet this is going to be a successful meeting. I have all the confidence in the world in Ben and Chris and you have to like the things they have in place.”
Gene Vallandingham was asked what has kept so many horsemen on the backstretch over some very trying years in California. “It’s a way of life and you don’t want to leave, no matter how dark things look.
“I believe this new Watch and Wager meet gives us the brightest outlook we’ve had in a long time. Instead of pushing a giant snowball uphill, maybe it’s time we’ll have the chance to be driving a sled down the hill.
“Everybody is extremely upbeat and optimistic, and I think the key is to make a good impression right from the start and attract some attention from the bettors and from out-of-state horsemen.”
As a tip of the hat to many of those individuals who have made harness racing possible in California over the years, the late-closing events at the Watch and Wager meeting have been named in their honor.
Events have been named for owners Dr. Gary Budahn, Bob Staats, Marvin Shapiro, Lonnie Beck, Richard Staley, Bill Conlin and Lloyd Arnold, while driver/trainers Joe O’Brien, Bob Gordon, Joe Lighthill, James Grundy, Shelly Goudreau and Jim Dennis will be honored with series bearing their names. There is also an event named for longtime California steward Michael Corley and storied harness writer and historian Stan Bergstein.
The meeting is set to run through May, with Friday and Saturday programs through December 22, then Thursday, Friday and Saturday cards for the remainder of the session.
For the purse schedule, new horse incentive program, the list of late-closers and other details, please go to www.calxharness.com
by Mark RATZKY