Hoping to avert what one racing secretary called "open season" on the horse population in the state, the California Horse Racing Board took the unusual step of contacting a litigant who has put the board in a tenuous situation over a claiming rule.
During the board's March 19 meeting, attorney Rod Blonien phoned Jerry Jamgotchian, an owner who has sued the CHRB over a rule that governs "jail time" on the claiming of Thoroughbred racehorses, on the board's behalf to set up a meeting to discuss the lawsuit.
Blonien told the board and those assembled at the Golden Gate Fields turf club for the meeting that Jamgotchian answered the phone laughing hysterically because he was listening to the goings-on via the board's web cast. But he did agree to meet with Blonien and any other CHRB officials.
Later, in an e-mail to The Blood-Horse, Jamgotchian wrote, "I would welcome the opportunity to meet with CHRB officials and other interested parties to discuss my lawsuit. This dispute can be resolved if people are willing to listen and do what's best for California horseracing."
The phone call was the latest twist in a flurry of recent action surrounding a claiming rule amendment that was passed by the board in 2005. Aimed at preventing out-of-state horsemen from raiding California's claiming horse crop in order to race them in "racino" states, Rule 1663(b) prohibits an individual who claims a horse in California from racing it outside of the state for a period of 60 days from the end of the meet in which the horse was claimed. Stakes races are exempt from the rule.
Jamgotchian filed suit in California federal court March 10, contending the rule is overly restrictive and violates federal interstate commerce protections.
A state attorney general opinion agrees. So earlier in the week, the CHRB suspended the entire Rule 1663 governing eligibility to run claimed horses.
In closed session prior to the meeting, the board apparently discussed settling the suit with Jamgotchian, who said he was willing to consider dropping the case if he is reimbursed court costs and legal fees. During the March 19 meeting, the board took action to reinstate parts of the claiming rule that had earlier been suspended, except for the restrictive provision for entering out-of-state races.
A revised rule that would shorten the jail period to simply 60 days from the date of the claim will be submitted to the attorney general's office for further opinion, said Kirk Breed, executive director of the CHRB.
"Until we get that opinion, we're just fishing in the dark here," he said.
Tom Robbins, racing secretary for Del Mar, told the board that if they do not have the protection, horsemen from slots states will swoop into California to claim horses here.
"I can tell you that if you do what you are about to do, this is going to be open season for horses in California," Robbins said.
"This is going to be a terrible situation. We're going to be picked clean," agreed Jack Liebau, president of Hollywood Park.
Board chairman John Harris complained that most other racing states have rules to protect them from losing horses via the claim box and California will be at a competitive disadvantage. He suggested that racing needs a national rule to prevent claimed horses from immediately being shipped from the state in which they are claimed.
"We need to get Mr. Jamgotchian some frequent flier miles and have him file lawsuits in all of these other states," Harris joked.
Jamgotchian sees only positives from the rule suspension.
"I believe that elimination of rule 1663(b) will actually help to bring more racehorses to California because this rule actually discourages out of state trainers from racing in California," he wrote in his e-mail. "Elimination of rule 1663(b) should further stimulate claiming in the state and provide the state of California with much needed claiming tax revenue.
"The sole aim of my lawsuit is to allow the owner to control his/her horse," he added. "Neither the California racetracks nor the CHRB seem to understand that they do not own or control our racehorses.
"The racetracks do control the purse money offered, their racing surface, stakes schedule, etc. So if they provide a quality racing opportunity for owners, why are they so concerned about owners taking their horses out of California? Our country is based upon a free market system, so let the free market determine each racetrack's fate."
It's not clear how vigorously the rule was enforced. The board granted a temporary waiver of the rule in June 2006 because of confusion over how it affected the fair race meet in Fresno County. But a question of whether the waiver was -- or should have been -- extended to other meets in the state since then was not addressed.
At least six horsemen have been fined a total of $8,600 since the rule was waived in 2006, including a $6,000 fine against Edgar Roy Clarke levied in July 2007. Clarke additionally received a 60-day suspension of his license for racing two California-claimed harness horses at Pocono Downs in Pennsylvania in May 2007.