by Jack Shinar
About $1.4 million has been added to the purse structure in Northern California under an agreement recently approved by the Thoroughbred Owners of California for upcoming meets at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields.
The change has led to increased purses at the California State Fair, which opens Aug. 21. The condition book for the Sacramento meet has been out for more than a month, but the State Fair is required by law to pay purses comparable to those at Bay Meadows.
Bay Meadows opens Aug. 30. From Aug. 30 to Sept. 2, there is a four-day overlap of the meets at Bay Meadows at Cal Expo.
The purse hike at the Magna Entertainment-owned Bay Meadows and Golden Gate will mainly effect the lowest-level claiming races and allowance and overnight stakes purses, said Jim Ghidella, director of the TOC for Northern California.
"The problem we've been having is that with the horses at the bottom end, the purses won't support what it costs to keep them running," Ghidella said. "We needed to give owners a reason to stay in business. We need those horses. That was our number one priority."
The minimum purse has been raised from $7,000 to $9,000 for the lowest claiming level of $3,200, he said.
"This means a guy in Southern California who can't get anywhere with his maiden can bring him (to Northern California) and race him for the bottom maiden-claiming price of $8,000," Ghidella said. "If he wins, he can run him back at $6,250 for a $10,000 purse. He's in business."
An underpayment in purses due mostly to additional revenue from account wagering, which went into effect in California in January, is responsible for the increase, Ghidella said. There was also some restructuring of the stakes schedule, he said.
Overnight stakes purses have been increased from $55,000 to $60,000. With California-bred incentives, the purse is upped to $78,000.
"That's very significant," Ghidella said. "It means that no owner of a Cal-bred competing in an overnight stakes in Northern California will be racing for a purse of less than $78,000."
There are 43 overnight stakes on the annual schedule at the two tracks. The TOC hopes the increase will encourage more investment among owners in young state-breds, Ghidella said.
There is also an increase of $1,000 in purses for the first two allowance conditions and for optional claimers of $25,000 to $50,000.
Out-of-state trainers, most notably those in Washington and Canada who have played a key role in winter racing in Northern California, have indicated greater desire to participate now that tensions over issues like workers' compensation insurance have eased.
"I have never been more optimistic about racing here during the four years I've been involved (with the TOC)," Ghidella said. "This is a time to be enthusiastic about the future."
At the State Fair, director of racing Dave Elliott said the purse hike affects claiming levels of $3,200, $4,000, $5,000, and $6,250; maiden-claiming levels of $8,000 and $12,500; and allowance races.
For example, the bottom purse at Sacramento will be $9,000 (up from $7,000) for $3,200 claimers and $8,000 maiden-claimers. Allowance races for non-winners of one or two races "other than" have been raised to $33,000 and $35,000, respectively.
"We're pleased to offer the same purse structure for specific types of races as Bay Meadows, and I hope this purse increase sends the message to horsemen that we appreciate them," Elliott said. "Northern California racing could not survive without the lower-priced claiming and maiden races that we are so dependent upon."
The meet at Cal Expo runs through Labor Day. The $75,000 Governor's Handicap on Aug. 24, and the $50,000 Earlene McCabe Derby on Aug. 25, will serve as the Thoroughbred stakes highlights.