The sunlight glimmered off David Hofmans’ glasses as he took a moment and racked his brain. The longtime Los Angeles horse trainer was searching for the right word to describe opening day at Los Alamitos Race Course.
Behind him, Hofmans’ thoroughbred, 3-year-old Dieci, trotted around the winner’s circle at the dirt track in Cypress, having captured the fourth of nine races that kicked off Los Alamitos’ two-week summer thoroughbred meeting in front of 2,427 fans Saturday.
With the comforting combination of beer, cigarettes and dirt swirling through the cool afternoon air, the appropriate adjective finally popped into Hofmans’ head.
“This is so — casual,” he said with a pause, describing the laid-back atmosphere at Los Alamitos. “It’s casual here. Much less stress.”
For the last six months, Southern California trainers experienced anything but such a feeling.
Thirty horses died at Santa Anita Park, either racing or training, during the track’s controversial winter-spring meeting, which concluded last Sunday. As the equine casualties mounted, so too did pressure — from the media, protesters and even politicians, including Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“At first, we didn’t really realize how important and bad of a situation we were in,” trainer Leonard Powell said. “Once the governor and the politics got involved, we knew that we had to make drastic changes.”
Powell trained the winner of Saturday’s opening race, 3-year-old Scrappy Deville, but was still sick over the tragedy at Santa Anita, where he was one of the many trainers to lose a horse.
“It’s a terrible grief, disappointment,” he said. “You question yourself — if the day before you didn’t see something, the week before, the month before. You question everything that you’ve done before that to see if you could have avoided it.”
As the disaster at Santa Anita unfolded, the California Horse Racing Board reacted with several rule changes, including the creation of a “super panel” to evaluate the fitness of horses that are scheduled to run. But an uneasiness remained at Santa Anita all the way through the end of the meeting.
“It has kind of simmered down since the meeting is over,” Hofmans said. “But this is fresh. We’re all looking forward to a new start, something different than what we’ve been having to deal with.”
Indeed, the move to Los Alamitos, which usually serves as the summertime buffer between higher-profile thoroughbred meetings at Santa Anita and Del Mar, provided a breath of fresh air.
Five-year-old Queen Bee To You won Saturday’s featured race, the mile-long $100,000 Bertrando Stakes. After flying in front of the pack, which included 11-year-old defending champion and Los Alamitos regular Soi Phet in his final race before retirement, she held off a late charge from 5-year-old Tule Fog down the stretch.
According to trainer Andrew Lerner, who captured his first stakes race, Queen Bee To You was entered in the Bertrando only after the CHRB’s new super panel ruled her out of a fillies race at Santa Anita last Sunday.
“We decided to take a shot here,” Lerner said. “It all worked out.”
Jack Liebau, vice president of Los Alamitos Racing Assn., watched the day unfold from his private table on a second-floor patio. Leading up to this year’s meeting, he had worried that the CHRB’s new precautionary rules would have costly side effects. He feared if too many horses were kept from competing, races would have to be canceled, potentially putting the meet in jeopardy. At Santa Anita, 24 days of racing were lost.
But, after one day at Los Alamitos at least, Liebau was able to smile as he looked out across the race grounds. Aside from protesters waiting at the track’s exit at the end of the afternoon, the opening day went smoothly.
“[There was] trepidation,” he said. “So far, we’ve been OK. I hope for the best as we go on.”
Los Alamitos has been hosting thoroughbred meets since 2014, when the traditional quarter horse track added a mile-long oval following the closure of Hollywood Park (now the site of Los Angeles’ under-construction NFL stadium). It is considered a relatively safe dirt track and was used for thoroughbred training in March when Santa Anita was temporarily suspended.
“I like it so much here,” said jockey J.C. Diaz Jr., who won three races Saturday. “Very good track.”
One uneventful day, however, didn’t eliminate all concerns in the racing community. The scars from Santa Anita are fresh. Trainers can’t help but remain apprehensive.
“The pressure is still on,” Powell said. “These animals are over 1,000 pounds. They go 40 mph. Anything can happen. The only relief is when they come back safe in the barn.”