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Time for house cleaning at the once great race place; Rick Hammerle’s ways have been mitigated disaster

By Warren Eves

It’s time for a house cleaning at the once great race place.

Santa Anita Park could not muster enough horses to run on April 27. That spoke loud and clear as to how bleak things have been for some time.

The lack of entries issue surfaced again.  A June 8th program in the condition book also had to be scrapped.

Anyone who has followed the erosion of Southern California racing over the years, even in casual fashion, knows you don’t have to go any further than to point the finger at Rick Hammerle. That’s why we were shocked when the Stronach Group’s Tim Ritvo told TVG viewers: “Rick Hammerle is a real top racing secretary and director of racing, so we know he knows what he’s doing.” Huh! You gotta be kidding!

Ritvo is in Arcadia, Ca., trying to put a finger in the dike which has been on the verge of bursting for a long time. Ritvo appears to be a nice guy, but while he’s been watching the store as president of Gulfstream Park, day to day operations at Santa Anita were continuing to decline.  Ritvo has been in charge of the Florida racing venue since July of 2011.

The Stronach era has seen one chief operation officer after another fail to implement something that turned the downward tide. Names like Ron Charles and Allen Gutterman come to mind. Daily attendance at Santa Anita has dropped to embarrassing levels. Poor betting programs with short fields are the reason.

“The one component in this thing is that the customer is the economic engine,” said Ritvo while being interviewed by TVG’s Scott Hazelton. “We didn’t have enough entries to close(for June 8th). Even if we could, it would have been an ugly looking card and we don’t want that.”

The end result? Racing at Santa Anita won’t resume until Friday, June 9. The hope is to run extra races on the upcoming Saturday and Sunday programs.

“So now all we have to do is look at the inventory where we have 3,100 horses(number of available horses on & off the Santa Anita grounds) and figure out why we’re not getting the participation needed,” says Ritvo.

Hazelton asked Ritvo what options Santa Anita will explore and whether pressure will be put on horsemen. “Me being an ex trainer, we don’t want to pick on anybody. But what we needed to look at immediately was the purpose of what we want to accomplish. Are people coming in and paying somebody $500 to claim a horse and send him out of town? Are people just using our facility as a training center. So we’ll be looking at all those aspects and seeing who’s participating and who’s not.”

As a bye product of this epic issue, some factions think there’s a chance Santa Anita’s senior VP Joe Morris may be sent packing.

Our opinion has not changed for years. Look no further than the racing office and Hammerle for the fall guy. It’s blatantly obvious. His approach to writing races and more importantly having a program to cultivate and replace the equine roster has played a huge role in the downward trend. He’s also not shown much love for the lower claiming level kind of horses.

The issue Ritvo must must address? It appears Santa Anita’s racing office and Hammerle have surgically weeded claiming horses from a roster of 3,100 horses. That, my friends, is gross missmanagement of equine resources. Will Ritvo order this area be addressed?

Here’s some facts about why things have gone oh so wrong under Hammerle.

We took a look at the past 12 racing programs produced by Hammerle’s racing office. During that span there has been one three-horse field, three four-horse fields and ten five-horse fields. In that same time period there was a total of 22 six-horse fields in 103 races. That sort of scenario should be unacceptable at any horse racing venue!

Then there’s the decision made by the California Horse Racing Board July 1, 1995 when AB-3150 was passed. That bill made it a misdemeanor to race a youngster prior to it’s actual two-year-old day of foaling.

The bastardization of two-year-old racing has really hurt overall racing programs. I remember like it was yesterday when former jockey agent Harry “The Hat” Hacek came up with an awesome two-year-old program that could have saved Santa Anita much of the peril it suffers at this hour. There are venues out there where horsemen can race their youngsters before they actually turn two years of age. That is not the case in California

The deceleration of two-year-old racing until later on in the year has hurt bigtime!

Two year old racing out of Santa Anita’s three-furlong chute(which is gone from view) early in the year was a nugget beyond any words I could use. The youngsters who won were filling non winners of two, and well before the famed days of racing at Hollywood Park a batch of new stars were being born. Santa Anita racing took a big hit when AB3150 was passed.

On  Jan., 21, 2011 famed jockey agent Harry “The Hat” Hacek wrote strong comments in this space: “Not until we rid California racing of all the exuse makers, spin masters and protectors can we regain the quality of racing we once had and deserve, including the betting public, probably the most under represented of all. I put the blame on poor racing department administration.”

I’m absolutely certain, Hacek’s sentiments haven’t changed!

Hacek, whom some claim ranks as one of the top jockey agents of all time, is retired and lives in seclusion in Hot Springs. He worked under probably a record number of directors of racing and/or racing secretaries. The list includes Frank “Jimmy” Kilroe, Kenny Noe, Tommy Trotter, Howard Battle and Louis Elkins. “They all had secure racing offices, stayed within predetermined guidelines and rules, and always adhered to a notion of fairness to all; never interferring with the natural flow of entries.”

Keep in mind this was six years ago when Hacek wrote his scathing accessment of Santa Anita’s fall from grace. “What we see in the Santa Anita racing office today resembles a social gathering more than a workplace, and the California Horse Racing’s Board’s rules are violated daily. The way the leaders disrupt the flow of entries is absurd. The way races are manufactured and manipulated is appaulling. Some trainers obviously get their way when others do not.”

Harry had been in and around most major thoroughbred horse racing venues, but his love of the sport obviously never waned. “The Santa Anita racing office does not stay within any guideline, they adhere to whatever serves the moment and individual; usually at the cost of the overwhelming majority. Never have I witnessed such shenanigans. It is something one would expect from the bush tracks of Carencro, Louisiana and Salisaw, Oklahoma.”

Hacek’s rant in January of 2011 took no hostages: “I was taken aback by an article in the Daily Racing Form recently. Mike Harlow(who was fired in October of 2011), director of racing at Santa Anita, spoke disengenuously about a horse shortage in California. It is the director of racing’s responsibility to replenish his stock season to season, not to sit in his office and watch the crops die in the field. If Santa Anita racing leaders excel at anything, it’s making excuses. The truth of the matter is Mike Harlow and his racing secretary Rick Hammerle are overwhelmed by their job responsibilites. To compensate for their shortcomings they resort to skulduggery. I recommend Harlow and Hammerle read the CHRB rule book. It would not surprise me if they have had some long standing and very sound rules amended to air their wicked ways. How about revealing too much information about the entries?

“It might do well if they told some enticed horsemen it is against the rules to enter horses that are never going to run. But that would not help their cause. Has anyone been watching how many horses have been scratching out of short fields usually by trainers with other horses in said race? This tactive is fraudulent and sometimes encouraged by the racing department. Does the board of stewards ever put any of these trainers on the carpet? Absulutely now! The stewards could be considered accomplices to wrong doing.

“Nowhere else in America are so few trainers allowed such dominance. Better were the days when caps were placed on all trainers. Unlimited stalls are not an entitlement. They are a compound problem, the bigger problem facing California racing today. What good does it do a program to have trainers stakes deep in so many categories? They can only enter a limited few.

So what’s the solution? For starters. How about lowering the bottom claiming level of $6,250 down to $4,000? Stop the moronic boastful belief that Santa Anita racing is so much better than the rest of the world. Higher classification horses may be on the roster of the big six, but that alone won’t make the money wheel turn. Make room for a bevy of small outfits. Let it be known that the stuffy operational ways of operating the Santa Anita racing office have changed. Make it known small two and three horse outfits will be given an equal opprtunity co compete. If Santa Anita is truly interested in rejuvenating the program, that’s one change that could up the percentage of betable races in quick order.

The other issue which we’ve written about for eons is the country club faction that has been allowed to have their way. Out of town horsemen know there are about six horsemen who have been stalwarts in the west, who have gotten their way for well over a century. The good old boys club, made up mainly of the greedy members of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, can no longer run or manipulate day to day operational ways in the Santa Anita racing office.

The latter issue is a touchy one. If Ritvo and boss Frank Stronach are serious about turning things around in the west, some of us believe it can be accomplished by putting new and young progressive minds in the right places. Hammerle needs to be shown the door.

There’s a bevy of horsemen that would love to race at famed Santa Anita Park, but major operational changes are needed in the bowels of Santa Anita’s front office and racing department to make that possible.

If you disagree with us, we submit the following data to back up our long running stance on the operational ways of Santa Anita’s racing office. Hammerle, over a long period of time, has failed to implement any kind of a program that encourages horsemen to campaign stables in Arcadia. His condition book has always lacked racing conditions that would allow a bevy of lower level horses to compete at Santa Anita.

In the last 12 programs(from May 21 to June 4) which saw 103 races carded at Santa Anita only 6 were carded  for horses $6,250 to $10,000 claimers. That, my friends, is simply not going to work at most venues. One could say that the good old boys club is well entrenched because the greedy TOC has effectively squeezed out the very ingredient that makes the gambling wheel go around. That would be betable claiming races with full fields.

Should members of team Stronach shoulder the blame? Without question! Or…. should we continue to pile on the greedy Thoroughbred Owners of California? Nobody can dispute the TOC has played a huge part in an incredible fall from stature nationally.

One thing is blatantly obvious, the greed feed in Southern California has taken thoroughbred racing to an embarrassing level not even this scribe could foreseen.

When I began covering horse racing in Southern California owner Robert Strub projected stern respect and F.E. “Jimmy” Kilroe left no doubt who was in charge. The late Jim Tunney was feared. That kind of respect from the top of SoCal’s thoroughbred horse racing ladder is nowhere to be found these days. The racetrack in Arcadia, California, was rigidly run by execs and hard nosed stewards. You didn’t finagle the front office, in particular the entry box, and stall space was revered anything you’ll find today.

Then came the “Baffy” era when his fat cat owner and the Thoroughbred Owners of California gained a foothold in operational ways. “Baffy” was having his way at the entry box, something that would never had come to pass in the Kilroe era. For that matter, not even during the days when Louis Eilken was directing the racing fortunes in Arcadia. The horrificly sad seven “sudden death” issue with “Baffy” horses was headlines in 2014.  Horse racing’s poster boy admitted giving all his horses Thyro-L. This issue was conveniently swept under the rug by the CHRB’s chief enabler DVM Rick Arthur.

I remember it like it was yesterday, those times when Bob Benoit and Nat Wess got on the plane and visited Chicago and New York in quest of out of town equine talent. They were good at it, no doubt about it. But with the exception of Del Mar’s ship and win promotion, little has been done at SoCal racing venues to hustle horses from afar. And the graduate of the U of Arizona officials school at Santa Anita never has known how to hustle outside his own stable gate. The local click of “Baffy” and friends was taking over  little by little, and nobody would or could stop it. And that’s what we have today.  A click of the same SoCal faces one could liken to a country club.

Rumors of going to a three-day race week should be dispelled. It would be one more nail in the coffin if Ritvo makes such a decision. Far too many factions would not be able to survive working only three days.

Ritvo needs to make sweeping changes. Clean house! Bring in a young, aggressive mind to put respect back in the racing secretary’s chair. Anything short of that is not going to change the bleak picture at famed Santa Anita Park.

Santa Anita notes scribbled down then and now—More Hacek on the plight of Santa Anita racing: “The giveaway stakes program at Santa Anita must be addressed. It makes little sense to dedicate in excess of 35% of their total purse structure to a category that only produces approximately 10% of the races and mutuel handle.  When Oaklawn Park fell on hard times in the late 1970s the first thing track owner Charles Cella ordered was for stakes programs to be slashed. that led to tremendous resurgence. Cella wanted the majority of horsemen to be rewarded. Mr. Cella had his racing department raise all the overnight purses. There, my friends, is a lesson to be learned.”……… Around 7,000 were on hand on Dec., 7, 1907, the date Santa Anita Park originally opened on the property which is now the eastern end of the golf course……….. A crowd of more than 85,000 showed up on March 1, 1947. In 1948 Look Magazine called Santa Anita “the world’s richest race track” as betting reached more than $123 million during the 1946-47 meeting………..It was Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin way back in 1908 who founded the ground known that would eventually be known as Santa Anita Park. Baldwin actually began racing on his Rancho Santa Anita in 1875. Some called Baldwin one of the most successful racing men in America of his era. Onc year Baldwin actually won 15 of 25 races during a race meet at famed Saratoga. From 1885 through 1894 his horses won the American Derby in Chicago four times…………Volante, Silver Cloud, Emperor of Norfolk and Rey el Santa Anita are buried near the east general admission gates in Santa Anita’s paddock garden………………..When this writer first set foot on Santa Anita Steward Jim Tunney had get tough reputation and was feared. He ruled with an iron hand. That sort of judication is sadly missed in Southern California today. Tunney died on July 5, 1965 when suffering a massive heart attack on his way home from Hollywood Park. He was 59……………Forbes’ running graph estimates Santa Anita Park owner Frank Stronach’s worth is currently 1.47 billion. He founded Canadian giant Magna International in 1957. Magda is among the largest auto part suppliers in the world. The magazine reports Stronach continues to buy Florida land. His Adena Ranch owns more than 95,000 acres……………Boy oh boy does the sport miss the likes of Bill Shoemaker, who had the nomaker “The Shoe” on the racetrack he dominated. He won the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in 1951, well before they ruined the concept it was originally intended. The Shoe’s last win(his 8,833rd) came at Gulfstream Park aboard Beau Genius…………….The worst starting gate crew currently is at Penn National. Despite many short fields, the starter waits forever and seldom is there a clean load and a quick release………………Don’t know how we missed this item but we did. AB-1154: “Horse racing: equine drug testing: equine medical director(targeting CHRB equine DVM Rick Arthur) bill died. Interestingly it was all about the use of Lasix. Arthur, as well as the dysfunctional members of the CHRB, are humongous reasons why horse racing has lost a lot of stature nationally. Corruption has a long history with those associated with the CHRB. There was the Acepromazine positive found in Fleet Treat Stakes winner Big Book in 2015.  And who owned Big Book? None other than George Krikorian a member of the much maligned CHRB.

One last add. Should Ritvo and company decide to cut back to a three-day race week we believe it would be one more nail in the coffin of a once healthy and respected venue. Many factions who work at the famed facility would not be able to make ends meet.

The answer? Clean house. Start anew with fresh faces and aggressive ideas.

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About The Author

Warren Eves
Warren Eves is a senior turf writer from the state of California who calls Pearl River, Louisiana his home. The one time editor of the Pasadena Independent Star News moved on to handle publicity for racetracks coast to coast. Eves gained his first exposure to the racetrack through a school buddy the late Art Lerille, Jr., who eventually became a trainer in California. Warren worked as farm manager for crack two-year-old trainer Ray Priddy, before holding on track jobs at the racetrack. He worked for Hall of Fame trainer M.E. "Buster" Millerick, Allen Drumheller, Jr., and Dick Moon. Eves has a well rounded background in all breeds. He developed Quarter Horse Report in 1979 with Ed Burgart, track announcer, at Los Alamitos Race Course. It was an innovative publication which revolutionized the industry with actual descriptions of the workouts. While handling publicity at Saratoga Raceway in upstate New York Eves was named employee of the year in 1970. He also handled publicity for Sunland Park, Centennial Park, Ascot Park, Thistledown, and two harness meetings in California. Eves then went into the 900-line business with his best plays and has compiled his own Kentucky Derby ratings for many years. In 1997 he began going back and forth to Las Vegas teaming up with Ralph Siraco to create the long runining radio show Raceday Las Vegas. Eves has produced and directed many horse racing shows on both radio and television. In 2010 he got a call from Mark Geiger. That's when he began writing www.pricehorsecentral.com. Eves, with a reputation of a trip handicapper, is known for his video tape scrutiny. He currently monitors horse racing in for a major horseplayer. While writing for Ridder Publication at the Pasadena Star News his investigative reporting was highly regarded by his peers. Often on the cutting edge, Eves has been given the green light to write about what issues he sees fit to cover. Have a question. His book "Hold All Tickets" is soon to be made available for those who come to this site. It's a factual account of actual events and happenings that took place in the 70s, 80s and 90s. If Warren doesn't know the answer to a question you may have, he'll tell you up front. Eves won't drop it there, however, he'll find someone who knows the answer and get back to you.

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