For all but one horse, the road to the $250,000 Champion of Champions, the nation's richest race for older quarter horses, begins on Saturday in the 440-yard trials.
Trial entries, which will be taken today, took on added significance last week when trainer Bruce Bell announced that Deceptively, who holds an automatic berth to the race, would miss the final because of injury. That left Refrigerator, the reigning world champion and 1992 Champion of Champions winner, as the only horse with an automatic berth into the final.
Deceptively's absence means that a record nine horses from Saturday's trials will advance to the finals to meet Refrigerator, a 5-year-old gelding who is undefeated in four starts this year. In 1993, Refrigerator has won the World's Championship Classic, Breeders Championship Classic and Los Alamitos Championship, races that include automatic berths to the Champion of Champions. Refrigerator earned an additional automatic berth with his victory in the 1992 Champion of Champions.
Because of those four major stakes victories, the trials will determine virtually the entire field. It also gives Refrigerator the advantage of waiting for the finals instead of running two races within two weeks.
That's the disadvantage facing Rare Form, a 4-year-old colt who finished second to Refrigerator in the Breeders Championship Classic. Rare Form suffered a leg injury in the 1992 Champion of Champions trials and missed the finals. He didn't start again until September and has since won one of four starts.
Bob Gilbert, who trains Rare Form, disagrees with the current format which awards five berths to the winners of major races and five berths to the fastest times from the trials. Horses earn spots in the trials by finishing in the top three of a grade 1 race, in the top two of a grade 2 or by winning a grade 3. The graded stakes scheme was designed to lure horses to Los Alamitos from the Midwest, but has not been effective.
"It's not right for some to run in the finals and not to run in the trials," he said. "I think they all should have to go to the trials. Blane (Schvaneveldt, who trains Refrigerator) and I talked about that. Last year, (Rare Form) fractured his cannon bone (in the trials) and couldn't run back in the finals, where he might have been on top of his game."
Deceptively, a 3-year-old filly who earned an automatic berth by winning the Rainbow Derby at Ruidoso Downs over the summer, raced for two years in a 10-race career marked by dazzling victories, but often plagued by injury.
At 2, she won the Kansas and Rainbow futurities, but missed an opportunity to win quarter horse racing's Triple Crown in the All American Futurity when a cracked right front cannon bone sent her to the sidelines for the remainder of 1992. Her undefeated record in four starts, however, was enough to earn the titles of champion 2-year-old and champion 2-year-old filly. She is yet another major quarter horse to retire in the last few weeks. Others include All American Futurity winners Dash Thru Traffic and A Classic Dash.
Expectations were predictably high for Deceptively's 1993 campaign, but she managed only one stakes victory--the Rainbow Derby--in six starts, the most recent a fourth-place finish in the Breeders Distaff Classic at Los Alamitos on Nov. 13, her first Southern California start.
Even though X-rays taken a few days later didn't reveal any bone damage, Bell still announced that the filly would not start again.
"We X-rayed all the way around," he said. "It's bad and it's not getting any better. My guess is it may not be bone damage, but maybe cartilage damage. We may be dealing with something that's been going on all year."
With only three weeks remaining until the end of the quarter horse meeting, it appears a harness meeting will not immediately follow a week later. The track is likely to remain dark for the winter.
A group of California harness owners and breeders have been unable to reach an agreement with Dr. Edward Allred, a 50% owner of Los Alamitos, on the dates and conditions of a winter harness racing lease.
Harness racing has been conducted each year at Los Alamitos since the early 1970s, but negotiations between the two groups ended recently. The harness group wanted to race until the first of April, while Allred wanted to stop harness racing in early March in order to allow quarter horses back on the track to train for an April meeting.
Allred offered to lease the track from mid-December to early March. He said on Tuesday that he also was willing to help fund a portion of the meeting, but the offer was apparently rejected over the weekend.
Two California harness horsemen leased Los Alamitos for three months this year, but the group chose not to lease the track this winter. No harness racing has been conducted in California since the Sacramento meeting ended in early August.
"The group would like to run at Los Alamitos, but it can't be a one-sided (lease)," said trainer Bobby Gordon, a minor investor in the consortium, which is believed to number 15 individuals. "We can't get the same lease as the guy that raced there last year. They tell you that they want to lease it, but they make it impossible to lease. If we want to keep (harness racing) going in California, there's not a lot of facilities to run at."
One racetrack that harness interests are negotiating with is Del Mar, which plays host to a thoroughbred meeting from late August to mid-September each year. Currently, harness horses are using the facility for training in anticipation of a winter meeting. Gordon estimates there are 250 harness horses at Del Mar.
Gordon is hopeful that the Del Mar meeting would begin in January and run through early April. Time is the biggest problem facing the harness industry. Any announcement concerning a secured lease can't come soon enough because many California horsemen have spent the autumn racing in other parts of the nation and won't return unless they're certain racing will be conducted.
According to Gordon, a Del Mar meeting would run three or four days a week. Harness racing hasn't been conducted at Del Mar in more than 10 years and is basically an unproven market.
"(Del Mar) is an unknown," Gordon said. "The pluses include simulcasting if we get a fair shake between the thoroughbred races. It could be a major plus with the crossover betting. The state should be the biggest benefactor. They need the money. I'm sure the thoroughbred industry wouldn't want us racing days, but we didn't get a vote on whether they raced Friday nights (at Hollywood Park)."
Los Alamitos Notes
There is a 12-race program today, but no racing on Thursday. . . . Griswold, a 7-year-old gelding who is undefeated in four 870-yard stakes this year, will be a heavy favorite in Saturday's $75,000 Marathon Handicap, the richest 870-yard in the nation. Griswold won his 12th Los Alamitos stakes on Nov. 13 in the Breeders Marathon Classic.
Since only 10 horses were entered on Saturday for the Golden State Derby trials, Wednesday's trials were canceled. If one more horse would have entered, 11 horses would have competed for 10 spots. The 10 horses expected to run in the $108,000 final on Dec. 10 are Avison, Awesome Blossom, Dolls Secret, Firstdown Touchdown, Form For Fashion, Ima Gold Dasher, Mega Dash, Oh La Secret, Sables Secret and The Dream King.
Jockey Kenneth Clerisse broke a finger in a spill on Saturday when his mount, His Dashing Effort, broke down in the stretch of an 870-yard race for $2,500 claimers. His Dashing Effort was destroyed.