Officials Plead Case to Calif. Committee

At a time when California is facing a state budget deficit approaching $15 billion, horse racing industry officials pleaded their case for special consideration before a legislative committee convened at the State Capitol in Sacramento March 5. 

Officials told the Select Committee on California's Horse Racing Industry that the sport needs legislative support to prepare for the future. Noting that Bay Meadows Racecourse is scheduled to close later this year, and Hollywood Park faces potential shuttering in 2009, several said racing's survival will depend on publicly-owned county fair racing facilities that will require much renovation.

"I think this industry is in a terrible shambles right now," said Cliff Goodrich, representing the Los Angeles County Fair. "We're talking about 50,000 full time equivalent jobs and $3 (billion) to $4 billion for the economy of the state. At some point you're going to have to take a courageous stand on behalf of horse racing."

Goodrich said that up to $70 million will be needed to develop new training centers to replace Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park. His track, Fairplex, in Pomona, has been mentioned most prominently as a training replacement facility in Southern California, while Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton, about 35 miles from Bay Meadows, is in position to take up the slack once that historic track closes.

"We want to keep jobs and there are thousands of jobs in racing in the Bay Area," said Rick Pickering, representing the Alameda track.

Marsha Naify, who chairs the Thoroughbred Owners of California board, pointed to the example of Del Mar -- which is located on San Diego County fairgrounds -- as the sort of facility that could place racing on solid footing for decades to come.

"Both are eager to become the next Del Mar success story, but they will need your help," Naify said.

Senate committee members, which included chairman Edward Vincent (D-Inglewood), Bob Margett (R-Glendora), whose district includes Santa Anita Park, and Leland Yee (D-San Mateo), were sympathetic. Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), set to become Senate President later this year, sat in on part of the testimony. He credited Vincent with emphasizing for him how important racing is to the state's agribusiness.

After the hearing, Steinberg indicated that the industry must be realistic in how much help it can expect from the state. "We're facing a very difficult time," he said.

Jack Liebau, president of racing for Bay Meadows Land Co., owner of Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows, complained that pressure from Indian gaming from within the state and from the increasing number of racino states around the country had undermined California racing.

Vincent, a big supporter of racing who likes to say he can see the finish line at Hollywood Park from his home, said expanded gaming (such as slot machines) would help the sport with some of its biggest problems: purse and field size and on-track attendance. Now in his final term in the Senate, Vincent said he would introduce a bill placing a ballot referendum for expanded gaming for the tracks before voters.

But with strong opposition from gaming tribes and racing's poor record in past gambling referendums, he said he was doubtful that it would be successful. "We all know what that's about," he said.

Yee, who has been a fierce critic of the California Horse Racing Board's leadership on behalf of Bay Meadows, took a conciliatory tone, saying the Legislature would "take up the slack" caused by any track closures.

"We have a lot of problems, but we may not be that desperate," he said. "We need to step back and ask, 'What's it going to take to save Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park ?' What are the solutions we need to come up with? What is the comprehensive package that is going to benefit everyone?"

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