Hollywood Park looks to Turf Festival

Sondheimer is a Times staff writer.

It’s the halfway point in the 40-day Hollywood Park autumn meeting, and this weekend’s Turf Festival featuring three Grade I stakes and six stakes overall offers an opportunity for a restart of sorts.

November has not been a kind month for the thoroughbred racing business in Southern California, with attendance, handle and purses down and claims off by 50% compared with the same period last year.

This weekend, besides the $400,000 Citation Handicap today and the $500,000 Hollywood Derby and the $500,000 Matriarch on Sunday, there will be an appearance by Zenyatta, the unbeaten 4-year-old filly, a leading candidate for horse of the year. She will be paraded between races Sunday.


Certainly, the deteriorating economy has a lot to do with the slow start at Hollywood Park. Just look at the claiming business. Last year, after the first 20 days of racing, there were 69 claims of horses worth $1.6 million. Over the same period this year, there were 34 claims for $934,000. That dramatic drop not only costs the track but also the state in loss of sales taxes. Attendance at Hollywood Park has averaged 4,714, down 8%, and on-track handle averaged $1,109,928, down 13%. The track has also reduced purses three times because of economic conditions.

But there’s at least one racing person whose bounce and optimism can’t be disrupted. Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith is having a year to remember, his mounts having won more than $9 million in earnings, and he’ll have three mounts in the big races this weekend: Becrux in the Citation, Madeo in the Derby and Black Mamba in the Matriarch.

Smith won two Breeders’ Cup races last month at Santa Anita and is rooting for his favorite horse, Zenyatta, to win the Eclipse Award for horse of the year.

“You can’t argue with perfection,” he said of Zenyatta, who’s nine for nine in her career.

The same connections that have guided Zenyatta, trainer John Shirreffs and owners Jerry and Ann Moss, are also in charge of Madeo, a 3-year-old son of Mizzen Mast who won the Del Mar Derby and will be one of the favorites in the 1 1/4 -mile Hollywood Derby.

“Madeo is training really well,” Smith said. “He should run big.”

As for trying to kick-start the Hollywood Park meeting, Smith said, “It’s not just racing. The country is down. I think it’s going to climb back up. You have three Grade I [races], and people love Zenyatta, so hopefully she’ll bring a few more fans out.”

The Matriarch, at one mile on the turf, could be the best race of the weekend, with Breeders’ Cup participants Precious Kitten, Cocoa Beach and Visit the top contenders.