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HRN Original Blog:
Toasting with Andrew Champagne

California Chrome and the Rise of Los Alamitos

California Chrome and Champagne 615 X 400

 

The most valuable member of the public relations office at Los Alamitos doesn’t sit behind a desk. He doesn’t have an Employee of the Month parking space, a plaque on the wall, or a boss clad in a suit and tie to answer to.

Instead, California Chrome has done all his work on racetracks from coast to coast. The Cal-bred That Could won three consecutive million-dollar races in April and May, and took the sport of horse racing on a wild ride that culminated in early-June at Belmont Park.

California Chrome’s Triple Crown run is over, and for the 12th time since 1978, horse racing was denied an equine immortal on a late-spring afternoon in Elmont, New York. While that story has ended, though, another, the one where a quarter-horse track in Southern California replaces one of the most storied venues in racing, is just beginning.

**************

It wasn’t supposed to end this way for Betfair Hollywood Park. Once a playground for the rich and famous, the track next to The Great Western Forum hosted Breeders’ Cup events and served as an exhibition of some of racing’s all-time greats. Citation became the sport’s first equine millionaire there. Seabiscuit won the first-ever Hollywood Gold Cup by bounding through its stretch. Affirmed, Round Table, and Swaps amazed fans there, as did recent stars such as Lava Man and Game On Dude.

None of that mattered, though, when higher-ups decided to close the track in May of 2013. The land was too valuable to leave undeveloped, and after Betfair Hollywood Park’s final race in December, the gates were shut once and for all.

A restructured racing calendar was finalized. As expected, Santa Anita and Del Mar, longtime stalwarts of Southern California racing, picked up dates. What may have opened some eyes, though, was the announcement that Los Alamitos would host thoroughbred-only meets in July and December.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Los Alamitos marketing and publicity director Orlando Gutierrez said. “We have great support from the industry, and there was never any doubt we could have a successful meet.”

A 21-year employee of Los Alamitos, Gutierrez has long played a substantial role in the operations of one of the top quarter horse venues in America. The upcoming July meet, though, brings an array of new challenges, ones that prompted several sweeping changes to the track and its surrounding area.
 
 

The track itself, which was once a five-furlong oval, is now one mile in circumference, with a homestretch measuring 1,380 feet (making it the longest in the country). Additionally, hundreds of new stalls are being built, as is a new winner’s circle, and The Vessels Club, Los Al’s upscale restaurant, has been reconfigured to allow for more patio seating.

One concern some observers had was a possible conflict between thoroughbred trainers and quarter horse trainers, especially given the relatively small barn area at Los Alamitos. However, Gutierrez says members of both communities have worked together in spectacular fashion.

“One trainer said, ‘Hey, we’re all horsemen, we’re all out here for the horse,’” he added. “The way everybody’s been getting along has been great.”

**************

A sign outside Los Alamitos on Katella Avenue welcomes race-goers to the home of Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome. Like seemingly everything else about California Chrome, his home track is blue-collar, surrounded by a Costco on one side and a church on the other.

Inside, the winner of both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes resides in his stall, located in the barn area next to the far turn. He stomps around, he nips at passers-by, and he certainly doesn’t seem like a horse disappointed by the result of the Belmont Stakes or his troubled start in that race.

“He’s doing great,” assistant trainer Alan Sherman said. “His foot’s starting to heal up really nice.”

California Chrome became Los Alamitos’s horse after romping in both the Cal Cup Derby and San Felipe Stakes. A large Los Alamitos contingent was on hand as the son of Lucky Pulpit romped in the Santa Anita Derby, and fans and horsemen alike lined the Los Al rail when he stretched his legs one final time before the Kentucky Derby.

“It’s been awesome,” Sherman said of the support California Chrome has received. “Los Al’s been great. They’ve really treated all the thoroughbred trainers that have come here great, and it’s been a lot of fun for everybody.”

“We had 500 people here watching his workout,” Gutierrez added. “The whole rail was just packed with people.”

Gutierrez’s face lights up when asked about California Chrome and the work he has done for his home track. He hasn’t expanded the stretch, added new stalls, or renovated the grandstand, but Gutierrez is quick to say that the horse’s accomplishments have been immeasurable in bolstering Los Alamitos’s reputation.

“The amount of publicity that he provided us, we couldn’t pay for that publicity,” he said. “It gave us a lot of credibility planning for our first full-fledged daytime thoroughbred meet. We knew we had to establish ourselves as a world-class track, and to have the horse that won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness come from here, it definitely came at the perfect time.

“It’s been a lot of fun. He’s just a fun horse to be around.”

**************

The first-ever all-thoroughbred meet at Los Alamitos begins July 3. Naturally, California Chrome will play a role, as fans will receive commemorative t-shirts with paid admission.

The highlight of the meet figures to come on July 5, when the $500,000 Los Alamitos Derby is run. Formerly the Swaps Stakes, the race may attract a field including Eclipse Award winner Shared Belief, Robert B. Lewis hero Candy Boy, and several runners from the Triple Crown trail.

However, the horse that played such a role in bolstering Los Al’s reputation will not compete at its biggest meet ever. California Chrome is leaving Orange County this week, and will spend 30 days away from the track.

“We’re just going to let him be a horse for 30 days,” Sherman said. “We’ll let him go out in the pasture and just be a horse for a little while.

“The main goal is the Breeders’ Cup. We’ll probably run him one time before that, in the Awesome Again. If all goes well, that’s the plan.”

Despite the lack of the horse who put Los Al on the thoroughbred racing map, though, both Sherman and Gutierrez are very confident that the upcoming meet will be a successful one.

“It’s going to be a nice change,” Sherman said. “I think they’re going to do great, and hopefully they eventually get more dates.”


“We’re going to have a great meet,” Gutierrez reiterated. “We’re very excited.

 

 

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Older Comments about California Chrome and the Rise of Los Alamitos...

CALIFORNIA CHROME T=SHIRTS Pre-sales available on e-bay ITEM # (301223905449)
any idea what T-SHIRT will look like ???
I also wonder how the new meeting will alter that PREVIOUS weekly schedule, but, like you, not enough look it up, so, like you and Sleeping Beauty, I wonder.
you need to post a dictionary with your comments..
Me too, but not enough to look :)
Old Los Al had a year round q-horse meet with some of their biggest contests in late summer. Wonder how this new meeting will alter that previously weekly schedule.
Los AL is a bit land locked especially the parking area. THey could not handle a really big day there.
I LOVE-LOVE-LOVE THIS HORSE !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Can't believe you did not mention Zenyatta from Hollywood Park, otherwise great article. I remember visiting Los Alamitos a few times when I worked at Santa Anita back in the 70's.
Very surprised this track survived the almost total demise of rading in Calif. Maybe they were NOT involved in all the track surface contoversies, maybe it is the resurgent Q horse following. Don"t know but it appears this one will now be a lot like old SPortsman's (long and skinny). The physical plant has always been kept up well even in the days when 1000 on track was a big crowd. I was there in February and was pleased at what I saw. Good luck to them. VERY first race track I ever saw at about the age of 10
  • https://www.facebook.com/melann.johnston.5 · The only reason HP closed was because of a certain millionare in horse racing that sold out!! He wanted to keep his business on the East coast and let Hollywood fall!! He just recently purchased a share in Mucho Macho Man and couldn't help So. Cal racing?? What an ass!! · 35 days ago
  • amino998 · Often seems more like dismay than surprise, Woodbine can only dream of So Cal caliber ponies t_v. · 35 days ago
Great article, but mentioning Hollywood Park and forgetting the Queen of HP!! Zenyatta!! how could you!!!
Great stuff, Andrew. Nothing better than getting to meet the horse we have spent so much time writing about.
Hey Sword. I'm just sticking up for one of my girls, not trying to argue or doubt anything about the photos at and after the finish line. The photo that went around though did show her nose slightly in front, but it's a moot point. BTW, I got your last email. I haven't been around much the past few days. I'll respond to you tonight. Have a good one pal.
they ran ultra short sprint with fair based quality t-breds for years. I think, after awhile, it will take up the slack between the bigger meets quite well
Zatt other than the few Quarter Horse races i saw at Los Als,i never saw regular races. Will this be Fairplex at Los Als with better quality horses.
Looks like you had a great morning, Andrew ... Thanks for the insight on how California Chrome bolsters the first Thoroughbred meet at Los Alamitos.

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Meet Andrew Champagne

 

A native of upstate New York and a graduate of Ithaca College, Andrew Champagne fell in love with horse racing at a very early age on summer trips to Saratoga. His turf writing credits include time spent as a sportswriter, weekly columnist, and handicapper at The Saratogian, a summer working for The Saratoga Special, and "field research" at OTB facilities in Saratoga Springs and his hometown of Kingston. He also spent two years in the athletic communications office at Siena College, and interned with NBC Olympics at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.


Andrew moved to Pasadena, Calif., in October of 2013, and now serves as an Associate Producer in HRTV's Digital Media department and Horse Racing Nation's Southern California writer. Follow him on Twitter at @AndrewChampagne, and email him at andrewdchampagne@gmail.com.