Anne M. Eberhardt

Cal Expo Gains Extra Week of Summer Racing

California Horse Racing Board makes change over the objections of trainers, owners.

Cal Expo won a tussle to gain an extra week on the summer fair racing calendar beginning in July 2015 after several months of debate when the California Horse Racing Board approved the dates plan.

The decision March 21 came at the expense of the Sonoma County Fair at Santa Rosa, which loses the week in question, July 22-26, 2015, and instead was scheduled for a week, Aug. 12-16, when it does not currently have a fair scheduled to run. Also nicked was Golden Gate Fields, which loses a week and will see the start to its late summer stand pushed back to Aug. 21.

Both of the state's major horsemen's groups, the Thoroughbred Owners of California and the California Thoroughbred Trainers, were strongly opposed as well. Swayed by a staff estimate that overall handle would not be hindered and the lure of more than 340,000 California State Fair attendees expected during that week in Sacramento, the board decided to make a move that most of the industry opposed.

The CHRB received correspondence from just about every political representative available in the debate. Staff members for many of them showed up to reiterate their positions during the board meeting, which was moved to Cal Expo to accommodate them. The dates debate lasted for more than two hours before the board took a vote. Commissioners Richard Rosenberg and Madeline Auerbach, citing horsemen's objections, opposed the majority.

In approving race dates in Northern California for 2014 last December, the CHRB had placed a condition on the action specifying that Cal Expo would receive a third week on the 2015 calendar. That action, which would provide the State Fair with live racing during its entire run, came after several months of disagreement in 2013 on the calendars from representatives of the tracks affected by the proposed change.

An ad hoc committee was established consisting of commissioners Steve Beneto and Jesse Choper, which held several discussions with the competing interests, the most recent on Jan. 13.

Beneto, who previously served on the Cal Expo fair board, said the proposal to assign Sacramento and Santa Rosa three weeks apiece "gives everyone a fair shake."

Joe Morris, president of the TOC, said the loss of a week of racing would cause a $500,000 drop in handle at Golden Gate Fields, with a loss to purses of $100,000 and $75,000 more in stabling and vanning funds.

"What we would like to see is the same schedule as in 2014," Morris told the board. "The TOC is not in favor of any fair racing without a fair in session."

Charlie Dougherty, deputy director of the CTT for Northern California, said 86 of the 102 regular trainers at Golden Gate and the satellite training facility at Pleasanton in Alameda County had signed a petition supporting Santa Rosa's position to keep the fair schedule as it was.

"Ninety percent of the trainers we have polled would like to keep the schedule the same as in 2014," Dougherty said. He said the horsemen are looking out for the welfare of their horses by staying at Santa Rosa, noting that average afternoon temperatures were 13 degrees higher in Sacramento in July. Temperatures routinely top 100 degrees at that time of year in the Sacramento valley.

Alan Balch, executive director for the CTT, noted the success of racing at Santa Rosa, which installed a turf course several years ago, adding, "We do not see the compelling reason for making this change."

Cal Expo, whose bid for expanded dates was supported by the California Authority of Racing Fairs, draws July 9-26 in 2015. Sonoma County, which could have relinquished its third week, is scheduled from July 29 through Aug. 16. The Humboldt County Fair in Ferndale is scheduled for two weeks, Aug. 19-30, but runs concurrently with Golden Gate for most of that time.

"We're in favor of better balance in scheduling of fairs," said Chris Korby, executive director of CARF. "Golden Gate Fields received a major windfall in dates when Bay Meadows closed. We see this as a way to achieve better balance in the fair dates."

Korby noted that in the past five years, California has lost two major racing venues, Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park, to private development interests. Noting the decline in attendance at Golden Gate Fields in recent years, which he attributed to an excess of racing at the Albany track, he said that fairs are going to play a bigger part in the future of racing in the state.

"It is the biggest fair in the state," Korby said of Cal Expo. "In my mind, I look at this and feel the board needs to take racing to where the people are."

Rick Baedeker, the CHRB's executive director, said a staff analysis of the economic impact of an extra week at racing at Cal Expo found it would result in an increase of $700,000 in overall total handle, based on 2013 figures.

Richard Lewis, director of racing at the Sonoma County Fair, said the facility would race the third week under the revised dates plan. However, he was uncertain if there would be a fair attached to it. That decision would be left up to the county's fair board and carnival concessionaires, he said. In correspondence with board, officials said that when Santa Rosa raced a week without a fair in 2010, ontrack handle dropped by 50%.

Also unhappy with the dates plan approved by the board was the Humboldt County Fair in Ferndale. Jim Morgan, representing the Humboldt fair, said it "will not survive" with most of its dates overlapped with Golden Gate.

After the meeting, Balch noted that "there is a long time between now and the summer of 2015," suggesting this would not be the end of the debate. He questioned the staff's analysis of the impact on wagering as well.

"I have not seen any figures that indicate a week at Cal Expo will equal that handle produced at Golden Gate Fields, or at Santa Rosa, either, for that matter," Balch said.

The full 2015 summer schedule in Northern California consists of the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton (June 17 through July 6), followed by the State Fair at Cal Expo (July 9-26), the Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa (July 30-Aug. 16), the Humboldt County Fair in Ferndale (August 19-30), and somewhat concurrently at Golden Gate Fields (Aug. 21-Sept. 13), the San Joaquin County Fair in Stockton (Sept. 18-27), and the Big Fresno Fair in Fresno (Oct. 1-12). The various locations will designate  their precise racing dates within these block allocations when each submits its license application three months before the start of its meet.

In other action, the CHRB approved for a 45-day public comment period a proposed regulatory amendment to require that authorized bleeder medication be administered by independent, third-party veterinarians along with a requirement for a prescription for furosemide (Salix). An earlier attempt to pass the rule in October 2012 was postponed due to objections from the California Veterinary Medical Association.

Commissioner Auerbach reported that the newly designed stakes schedules in Southern California following the closure of Hollywood Park will include all stakes races historically run in Southern California.

After meeting with track representatives, she said the Inglewood Stakes (gr. IIIT) would be run April 25 at Santa Anita Park as the Last Tycoon Stakes, the Lazaro Barrera Memorial Stakes (gr. III) would be run May 10 at Santa Anita, and the Moccasin and Beverly Hills Handicap (gr. IIIT) would move to Del Mar with the dates to be determined. The other stakes from Hollywood's schedule have already been absorbed into the schedules at Santa Anita, Del Mar, and Los Alamitos.

The board voted to support a California Senate resolution that would designate the racetrack at Cal Expo as the Kirk Breed Memorial Race Track, honoring the late CHRB executive director who also served as general manager of Cal Expo and on its board of directors.

The board approved for 45-day public notice a proposed regulatory amendment deleting from track license applications the requirement for synthetic surfaces. Changes to the application form would also require the past two years of stakes schedules, a listing of pari-mutuel takeout rates, and the names and working schedules of racing veterinarians.