Events Spur Debate On Northern Calif. Race Dates

By Jack Shinar & Debbie Arrington
One racecourse is apparently closing at the end of the year, a victim of its decision not to install a synthetic racing surface. Then voters rejected the track that would have eventually replaced it. It has been a tumultuous month for the future of Northern California racing, which remains in flux.

With the support of California owners and trainers, a coalition of fair tracks and Golden Gate Fields are developing a stopgap plan for 2008. Beyond that, officials say, a more permanent arrangement could arise from the same coalition. 

If a proposal under consideration gets approved, Magna Entertainment-owned Golden Gate Fields would run 154 days in 2008 (94 in the winter and 60 in the spring). The Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton would get a total of 31 days (13 in March and 18 in June and July) and the Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa would run 23 consecutive days in July and August.

Cal Expo would follow with four full weeks -- 20 days of racing -- stretching beyond the State Fair’s traditional Labor Day finale into mid-September. The San Joaquin County Fair in Stockton would get its usual 10 days, but would race Sept. 17-28 instead of during its usual fair run in early summer. Fresno County Fair would continue its 14-day schedule in October.

Approval of the plan has to wait. The California Horse Racing Board deferred the proposal at its April 19 meeting. The board’s next meeting will be May 24 in Sacramento. One of the biggest advantages of the proposed schedule is that it eliminates overlapping of summer meet dates, a problem that has plagued the region's racing calendar for several years.

In light of recent developments, the board wanted more time to study, said Christopher Korby, executive director of the California Authority of Racing Fairs. 

"We wanted to step up," he said. "Our paramount interest is that racing continue to succeed in Northern California."

Dixon Downs’ loss at the polls April 17 threw an unexpected curve into the industry’s long-range planning.

"It’s still too fluid," commissioner John Harris said of the situation. "The board is looking at alternatives. But 2008 will be here soon." 

Korby agreed. "What the fairs would like to see is, as early as possible, a determination of (these dates). The industry needs to begin planning for successful racing in 2008."

Bay Meadows, scheduled to close Nov. 4, may still be in the mix in 2008. Harris, one of two commissioners who supported the San Mateo track's request for a two-year waiver from the CHRB's mandate that tracks racing more than four consecutive weeks install a synthetic racing surface, supports that and wants the board to reconsider its earlier decision. He reasons that none of the alternatives are better.

"As far as Bay Meadows is concerned, it’s not over ’til it’s over," said Cal Expo general manager Norb Bartosik, whose proposed dates for 2008 currently belong to Bay Meadows. "The date allocations will become clear once we know who the players are. In the next 30 to 60 days, there will be some light shed on this."

Cal Expo and Pleasanton have emerged as the most likely fair tracks to take up the slack when Bay Meadows goes away. Both have discussed expansion plans and expressed interest in partnering with a private track operator. However, Bartosik said Cal Expo is not currently involved in any negotiations or discussions along that line.

A synthetic alternative to the traditional dirt track, such as Polytrack or Cushion Track, costs $8 million to $10 million for installation. Bartosik estimated that it would cost $13 million for Cal Expo to add both a turf and all-weather track and make the other backstretch and facility improvements that a conversion to Thoroughbred racing would require. Cal Expo currently hosts year-round harness racing. 

Bay Meadows, the 73-year-old racing landmark, is in the midst of the redevelopment process. The CHRB spurred angry debate throughout the state’s racing community when it refused to grant the track a waiver of its synthetic track edict.

Harris and others would like to see Bay Meadows continue to race at least one more year until plans solidify. Dixon Downs’ defeat means a new track won’t be available anytime soon to replace the closed venue.

"Every member of this board would like to see Bay Meadows continue as a racetrack," said CHRB chairman Richard Shapiro, who faced a state senate resolution calling for his resignation following the board’s action. "I implore the industry to come together so we can do what’s best for the industry."

Using fairgrounds as the basis for the NorCal calendar makes sense, said Tom Bachman, vice chairman of the 8,000-member Thoroughbred Owners of California, which supported the CHRB’s action.

"We know Bay Meadows is going to close," Bachman said before Thursday’s meeting. "They just keep hanging on and hanging on. Our point of view is, ‘let’s get on with it.’ Ultimately, we think state-owned facilities are where racing will be on a permanent basis. They don’t have the threat of redevelopment. They offer real stability."

Bay Meadows includes the busiest simulcast facility in Northern California. Chris Carpenter, general manager of the San Mateo County Fair, said the adjacent fairgrounds intends to open a simulcast center by Jan. 1.

"We’re all interested in moving forward with this very important project," Carpenter said. "It is our intention to work with Bay Meadows for a seamless transition."

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