Trying to cure a scheduling headache, the California Horse Racing Board has started planning for the future -- with or without Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park.
In an Aug. 10 meeting at Del Mar, the CHRB's dates committee -- expanded to include all seven commissioners -- took the first step in piecing together a cohesive three-year calendar. Currently, the state allocates dates on an annual basis.
“Eventually, we want to create a calendar and solidify the future of California horse racing,” said CHRB chairman Richard Shapiro, who said he found the roundtable discussion encouraging. “We’ve got to take the uncertainty out of the equation. If some entities can’t make commitments, then we’ll have to make assumptions and move forward.”
Formulating a three-year plan is not easy, even in stable times. Both north and south racing circuits face the loss of major venues that have been crucial to California racing for 70 years.
Bay Meadows, in the midst of the redevelopment process, has been targeted to close as early as next fall. Bay Meadows Land Co. also owns Hollywood Park, which it bought from Churchill Downs Inc. in 2005 for redevelopment, and won't guarantee the operation of that keystone track past 2008 without alternative gaming or some other relief.
That makes planning difficult, particularly given the alternatives. There has not been a major racetrack facility built in the state in 60 years.
Magna Entertainment, which owns Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields, officially terminated its planned $250-million Dixon Downs project near Sacramento on Aug. 9 and will sell its 260 acres along Interstate 80. Facing huge deficits and angry investors, Magna had little choice after Dixon voters rejected its plans for the race track and entertainment and retail development in April.
MEC’s pullout quashed any possibility of a new racetrack coming on line in the near future.
So instead of getting an organ transplant, Northern California racing expects to cope with Band-Aids in the form of upgrades at state-owned fair facilities, likely in Pleasanton or Sacramento. But that takes time, money and legislation.
“Pleasanton would have to be considered the favorite by virtue that so many horseman live in that area,” said Norm Towne, who represented Cal Expo at the dates meeting. “But they need significant money. Cal Expo is not off the table.”
Pleasanton, home of the Alameda County Fair, has hosted racing since 1858, making it the oldest one-mile track in the United States. The fair envisions a $40-million makeover to get its venue in shape for more than two weeks of racing.
Cal Expo officials plan upgrades in the $25-million range, including a synthetic main track racing surface and turf course. Home of the State Fair and year-round harness racing, Cal Expo already has made progress in the legislature. Sponsored by Sen. Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks), SB 282 would allow Cal Expo to raise money for improvements through revenue bonds and seek private partners to invest in the facility. The bill already has passed the state Senate and is now in the Assembly’s appropriations committee.
In the south, officials at Fairplex -- the Pomona home of the Los Angeles County Fair -- have an ambitious plan to remodel their facility to replace Hollywood Park, but it would need at least 30 months to be implemented.
Meanwhile, Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park have joined forces with organized labor in an attempt to qualify a ballot referendum to overturn recently approved state casino compacts with Indian tribes. They hope to win approval for on-track slot machines or video lottery terminals, considered a long-shot. The Hollywood Park property is already the home of a huge card club. In California, only Indian tribes can have casino gaming.
In the first of a series of strategic planning sessions, state commissioners sat down with about 30 "primary stakeholders" to show their cards. Only problem: The decision-makers for Bay Meadows Land Co. didn't show up.
BMLC sent representatives who could not answer specific questions for the company. The board mainly wanted to know whether either track would commit to a three-year calendar.
Attorney Rod Blonien, representing Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park, told the board he could not make that commitment for the tracks.
In hopes of hammering out a calendar by mid-September, the commissioners scheduled another planning meeting Aug. 22 at Del Mar and strongly suggested that BMLC boss Terry Fancher attend. In addition, the board distributed questionnaires to the stakeholders, pointedly quizzing them about three-year commitments.
“No dates are sacrosanct,” Shapiro said. “We want a commitment for building a better future.”