By John C. Harris
"Can we all get along?"—the far-reaching statement made by Rodney King during the 1992 Los Angeles riots still fits many of the contentious situations racing all too often embraces. The failure of the California Horse Racing Board to give Bay Meadows a short-term waiver on California’s synthetic track mandate is an example.
Bay Meadows, either as a satellite or a live track, represents 47% of the purse money generated for all of Northern California racing. It is a suicide pact for racing to deny the operation of the economic motor Bay Meadows provides for so many segments. Hundreds of good people have worked diligently on both the front and backsides at Bay Meadows for decades, many of them living near the track.
I sadly realize that Bay Meadows, which is the longest continually running racetrack in California history, is destined to go away, probably in the not-too-distant future. However, Northern California may be irreparably damaged if the track is not even part of the mix for 2008 when racing dates are discussed by the CHRB later this year.
Although I was in the minority, (the vote was 4-2 against the waiver) I believe I was correct when I voted as a member of the CHRB to give Bay Meadows a short-term waiver of the synthetic track CHRB mandate, as I felt unique circumstances existed. There is no way Bay Meadows can justify investing the $5-$8 million it takes to put in a synthetic surface to run only one year. There is no other track in Northern California, other than Golden Gate Fields, that will or can have a synthetic surface by 2008. Racing all the dates at Golden Gate Fields is not a good option. To be a success, Northern California racing needs an alternate training center, plus a track with a turf course, sufficient stalls, housing for grooms, and a fan base. Northern California can come up with some good alternative solutions, but it will take time to do it right. Bay Meadows running another year can allow others time to plan and fund improvements needed at alternate tracks, and will much better serve both racing fans and horsemen. I greatly fear an exodus from the area of many good stables and an erosion of the fan base if we rush into something without understanding and planning for the consequences.
I realize there are some who will argue that if Bay Meadows gets a waiver, then Santa Anita will want one. I don’t think that is a valid concern. It makes sense for Santa Anita to put in a synthetic surface and Frank Stronach and Ron Charles have pledged to do so. A good payback exists for synthetic tracks, which is the reason I supported the mandate in the first place, but there needs to be reason associated with any governmental action.
I respect my good and well-meaning colleagues on the CHRB. I appreciate and share their hope and logic that synthetic tracks may greatly enhance horse safety and help racing in general. They just didn’t look at this particular case carefully enough when they voted against the waiver. The board should reconsider the action because of the critical impact the move will have on California racing in 2008.
Positions have hardened, and a "You’re fired, I quit" mentality may have been created between my two close friends, Jack Liebau (president of Bay Meadows) and Richard Shapiro (chairman of the CHRB). I was sorry to see California State Sen. Leland Yee introduce a resolution in the State Senate calling for Shapiro’s resignation. I understand and applaud the concern Yee has as San Mateo’s senator to keep Bay Meadows open, and I share those concerns, but feel Shapiro can be part of the solution. Although I disagree with his position on the waiver, Shapiro is a dynamic leader and a good asset for the horse industry.
Bottom line: There is no other good place to go in 2008, and the industry can’t afford the money and jobs that will be lost if Bay Meadows goes away in November 2007. It is like the impending demise of a loved one. While inevitable, it is heartless to see it happen sooner than necessary. Let’s regroup, support the waiver for 2008, and get busy on some good alternatives for the future.
John C. Harris was chairman of the California Horse Racing Board in 2004-05, and currently serves as vice chair. He also breeds and races horses in California. A former president of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association, he also served as chairman of the Bay Meadows Operating Co. from 1992-97 before the track was sold to Patriot American Hospitality.