An E-Ticket Ride
The best way to make sense of Doc Allred’s improbable life and times is to look back, long before the riches and admirers. Before the controversy. Before enemies condemned his soul to burn in the fiery depths of hell.
It was the late 1940s when Allred first saw horses run, brought to Santa Anita Park by his stepfather and later by his grandmother, riding a streetcar that came from downtown. Imagine what it was like for a poor boy. The call to post, colorful silks and thundering hooves. Like a dream.
Between races, he noticed parimutuel tickets scattered across the ground. He saw guys walking around, nudging the paper slips with their shoes, checking to see if anyone had been inattentive or dumb enough to toss out a winner.
When Allred grew a little bigger, he began pedaling to the track on Sunday mornings. The clean-up crews did not come until Monday, so the grandstand would be littered with detritus from the previous day. Stashing his bike in the bushes, keeping an eye out for the watchman, he would jump the fence to collect gunny sacks of discarded tickets.
Often there were winners for his stepfather to cash in later. As Allred says, “We didn’t have too much when I was a kid.”
This childhood memory contains much pertinent information, threads of the man Allred would become. The young doctor who, in the late 1960s, spotted opportunity in the abortion business. The aging millionaire who, years later, poured an unwarranted amount of cash into a rundown track in Orange County, creating the small gem that is Los Alamitos Race Course.
And something else about those Sunday mornings. “It was a little foreboding for a 12-year-old when you knew you weren’t supposed to be there,” he says.
But Allred went just the same. He has lived for 66 years on his own terms, unapologetic, even if it meant irritating allies and befriending a few adversaries.
This story would be simpler if it could be contained within the snug confines of the race track.
On a Friday afternoon Dr. Edward Allred sits at a private table in a club overlooking the finish line, nibbling slices of watermelon from a fruit plate and sipping Diet Coke. His style is direct but hardly brash, his head often ducking as he speaks. He is stocky, well-groomed in a knit shirt and slacks.
Notice the freshly painted grandstands, he says like a proud grandfather. See the way the track is tended?
In the sport of quarter horse racing--a stepchild to the more glamorous, more lucrative thoroughbred scene--this is the acknowledged Taj Mahal and Allred is irrefutable.
His stable produces winning horses year after year. Though Los Alamitos is shadowed by thoroughbred showcases Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar, it manages to stage California’s richest annual race, the Los Alamitos Million Futurity.
With horse racing on the decline, bettors lured away by card rooms and Indian casinos, the man and his millions have propped up an entire segment of the industry.
“He’s our biggest owner, biggest breeder, biggest track operator and biggest bettor,” says Dan Fick, executive director of racing for the American Quarter Horse Assn. “Day in and day out, we count our blessings that Doc is involved in our game.”
But his story is too big for 136 acres of track and barns, too big for sport alone. Out in the world, things get trickier.
Though Los Alamitos provides jobs and sales tax to the city of Cypress, the officialdom views its owner with skepticism, wary of his desire to bring in slot machines and other forms of gaming. They know him as a savvy negotiator.
“He likes to sit back and say he’s a country gentleman,” City Councilman Tim Keenan says. “He’s no fool.”
In the supercharged atmosphere of reproductive rights, Allred owns one of the nation’s largest privately held chains of abortion clinics, Family Planning Associates Medical Group, with 21 offices in California and two in Illinois. His success has brought not only wealth but protests, death threats and violent attacks.
Yet he has not run to allies for support. When Allred suspected Planned Parenthood of unfair competition and business practices, he filed a lawsuit. The women’s groups that protest in favor of abortion he dismisses as “screeching types that seek confrontation.”
If anything, the avowed Republican seems more aligned with conservatives who oppose him. Jack Schuler, an attorney who has sued him twice for medical malpractice in cases that were settled out of court, has been quoted as calling him “likable, a good businessman.” Allred gets unexpected praise from a pastor whose organization has picketed his clinic in Long Beach for 19 years.
“We have had theological discussions and he has asked my opinion, which makes him unique among abortionists,” says Rev. Al Howard, who operates a church and home for unwed mothers in Long Beach. “If you did not know what he did, who he was, if you met him at a party, you’d think he was a real nice guy.”
Howard once invited Allred to speak to his congregation. The doctor stood before the faithful and issued a challenge.
“I know your side and I know what you believe,” he said. “You people don’t know anything about me. You don’t know why I do what I do.”
An Emerging Pattern
Money was key from the start. His father died of tuberculosis when Allred was 6 and, after that, his mother periodically separated from his stepfather, an alcoholic. The family stayed with relatives or friends. A turning point came when Allred was 15, when his parents divorced and a physician his mother knew from Glendale Adventist hospital became a guardian angel.
Under this man’s guidance, the teenager transferred to a private academy and became a Seventh-Day Adventist. After high school, he enrolled at the church-affiliated La Sierra College--now known as La Sierra University--in Riverside.
Though Allred was grateful for a new start, he was a bit of a maverick, a moderate amid conservatives. “I guess I was the campus liberal,” he says. And he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, causing a stir with a pro-labor editorial in the school newspaper.
A pattern was emerging.
It wasn’t much later--during a fling with law school at USC--that Allred found a place where he felt more comfortable. In 1959, still a fan of racing, he happened upon Los Alamitos and got his first taste of quarter horses.
The crowd wore cowboy hats and boots, “a lot of Texans and Okies,” he recalls. It suited a young man who would someday favor car trips through Arizona and New Mexico, visits to Old West graveyards.
Allred was still broke. He was young, married to his high school sweetheart, Charmay, and would soon be switching to medical school. Still, whenever he had money, he went to the races.
The blend of gambling and competition thrilled him. Quarter horses are smaller and stouter than thoroughbreds, running shorter lengths, a mad dash down the homestretch. At no point is the action on a distant portion of the track. Everything happens in front of the grandstands.
“I fell in love with the short speed,” he said. “The beauty of this type of horse.”
But his true involvement in the sport would have to wait.
A Business Decision
After finishing medical school and serving in the Army medical corps in Vietnam, the 30-year-old Allred returned home in 1967 to begin a career. He took a job running a small hospital in South-Central Los Angeles that was struggling to stay afloat.
“They needed a young, aggressive physician,” he says. “They found me.”
The turnaround began when a group of doctors approached him saying they wanted a place to perform abortions for wealthy clients. The procedure had been illegal, so Allred thought they were crazy.
But the newly passed Therapeutic Abortion Act, which dealt with rape and incest, allowed pregnancies to be terminated in cases where a woman’s mental health was endangered. This clause gave doctors more leeway than politicians had intended. Suddenly, California had the nation’s most liberal abortion law.
At first, Allred’s 22-bed Avalon Memorial Hospital took in only a handful of women each week. Then a faster, safer and cheaper method--using suction instead of scraping--became available and one of the doctors, Kenneth Wright, taught it to Allred. The groundwork was laid for a booming practice.
“We had planeloads of people coming in,” Allred says. “We’d meet them at the airport with a bus.”
After the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision legalized abortion nationwide in 1973, Family Planning Associates Medical Group began to expand. Allred was flying from city to city in a private plane, performing scores of abortions each week. He was also encountering opposition.
First came protesters and death threats, then violence. A bomb was planted in his San Diego clinic in 1987. An arsonist set fire to his Ventura clinic in 1995. His North Hollywood office was firebombed two years later. Allred talks about this calmly, insisting he has never understood the fuss.
Having performed hundreds of thousands of abortions, he insists it was never a question of morals or politics. “I just never thought of it like that,” Allred says. He saw it as a lawful procedure, a service people wanted, a shrewd business decision.
Moments later, however, he acknowledges, “It’s not an easy issue and I can understand the perspective of people who oppose it.” He also has doubts about second-trimester abortions. “I’m not saying they shouldn’t be done at times but they should be given more thought.”
And some ideology sneaks into his dispassionate approach. Allred has long worried about overpopulation, a concern that persuaded Charmay and him to forgo having children. This conviction led to a controversial incident.
In 1980, talking to a reporter from the San Diego Union--now the Union-Tribune--Allred said: “Population control is too important to be stopped by some right-wing pro-life types. Take the new influx of Hispanic immigrants. Their lack of respect for democracy and social order is frightening. I hope I can do something to stem that tide. I’d set up a clinic in Mexico for free if I could. Maybe one in Calexico would help. The survival of our society could be at stake.”
He added: “When a sullen black woman of 17 or 18 can decide to have a baby and get welfare and food stamps and become a burden to us all, it’s time to stop. In parts of South Los Angeles having babies for welfare is the only industry these people have.”
Two decades later, Allred winces at the mention of these statements. He knows how racist they appear and says “that’s just not the way I am.”
He talks about his affection for California’s Mexican heritage, his appreciation for the growing number of Latinos who work at and frequent his track. At the same time, he stands by some of what was said. Overcrowding still concerns him. He still despises the welfare system, though critics point out that Medi-Cal has paid for many abortions at his clinics.
In the years since that article, Allred has avoided the limelight. He rarely performs abortions anymore. His days are spent golfing, his nights devoted to more cherished business.
‘He Was Crazy’
Racing came to Cypress in 1947 when Frank Vessels Sr. began holding informal matches behind his house on a 435-acre ranch. The crowds grew steadily for a decade and he eventually built a proper track and grandstand. By the late 1960s, Los Alamitos had hit its stride with an average attendance of more than 9,000, but this heyday would be brief.
Attendance plummeted in the late 1980s after the Vessels family sold to Marje Everett, then chairman of Hollywood Park. The grounds had fallen into disrepair, the grandstands gloomy. “For Marje, I think it was an afterthought,” a racing official says.
Everett responds: “We thought Los Alamitos would be a good addition. The racing industries are somewhat different. I was 50 years in thoroughbred racing and ... [eventually] we decided to concentrate on that industry.”
Hollywood Park sold to a harness racing group that had clashed with quarter horse people over use of the track. But Allred forged a relationship with the new owners and, in 1990, bought a majority stake. In 1998, he became sole owner.
The property cost $45 million and needed millions more in refurbishment such as new paint and a new racing surface. Allred built a small restaurant at the turn for home where owners and bettors could watch morning workouts. He turned part of the grandstand into his pet project, the $5-million Vessels Club with its $10 cover charge and linens, an upscale menu and a dress code that irritated some of the blue-jeans crowd.
This was different from his medical practice, not so sensible or profit-minded.
“A lot of times I thought he was crazy to keep pouring in money and I told him that,” says his closest friend and golf partner, R.D. Hubbard, another former Hollywood Park chairman. “He’s always been more interested in the sport than in money.”
Physical improvements weren’t all Allred brought to Los Alamitos. Working with owners, he struck a deal by which every horse--not just the top five finishers--got a slice of the purse. A small difference, but critical for marginal owners fighting to cover weekly training costs.
With nearly 500 horses coming out of his ranch in Atascadero, Allred has kept trainers employed on the backside.
“Some guy who is struggling, Doc will send him three or four horses,” said D. Wayne Lukas, the well-known thoroughbred trainer who started at Los Alamitos in the early 1970s. “You only do that if you care about the horsemen. He won’t let a guy die.”
His Favorite Place
On summer evenings, sunset arrives shortly after post time at Los Alamitos, bathing the grassy infield in a warm glow.
Fans cluster on the apron near the finish line, eating hot dogs and drinking beer. There might be a few families with children, a sprinkling of young men and women, but much of the clientele is in its 40s and 50s. The serious gamblers stay beneath the stands or in the clubhouse, hunched over tip sheets, yelling at television monitors that show races from this and other tracks.
Allred can be found at his table in the quieter, more staid Vessels Club, where he studies the horses, watches replays on a private monitor and bets prodigious sums.
His wife and he, still married, no longer live together. He owns homes on the coast and in the desert and has the ranch, not to mention a stake in several golf courses. There is nowhere he would rather be than Los Alamitos.
“This isn’t an ownership,” Lukas says. “It is a passion.”
It doesn’t seem to matter that crowds have thinned to an average of 1,516 as other forms of gaming keep closing in. It doesn’t matter that the track gets most of its $1.2 million in nightly bets from off-site wagering, faceless gamblers watching on television screens across the nation.
The floors are always swept and pink and white gardenias blossom along the home stretch. Palm trees shimmer as the sun dips to the West, over the barns. Sometimes Allred sticks around after the last race, after everyone has gone home and the lights have been switched off. He likes to gaze across the darkened grounds. “It’s so beautiful,” he says.
There is still a bit of the kid who sneaked into Santa Anita on Sunday mornings. There is a hint of destiny, as if that boy were meant to arrive at this point in time.
“I want to keep this place as nice as I can for as long as I can,” he says. “If God were to take me, I’m not sure anyone else would do this.”
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