By Debbie Arrington and Jack Shinar
Golden Gate Fields will be the first Thoroughbred track in California to race a three-day week when it reopens next month for its fall meet.
Track general manager Robert Hartman also addressed the long-term future of Golden Gate Fields. He told the California Horse Racing Board during its meeting July 21 at Del Mar that the 140-acre bayfront property, which is located in the cities of Albany and Berkeley, is one of six finalists as a location for an auxilary campus of the University of California's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
If selected, the track would be sold and racing in Northern California would move to a new venue, Hartman explained.
The CHRB approved Golden Gate's reduced schedule unanimously. Hartman said to think of it as "a seven-week experiment" to see if wagering handle improves with a cutback from four days.
“We decided to try something new,” he said. “We’ve been averaging six, seven-horse fields. We feel we’re not competitive with the rest of the country.”
With a continuing horse shortage, Golden Gate Fields will run a Friday-Sunday schedule during the meet, set for Aug. 19 through Oct. 2. The Bay Area track will host a 22-day fall stand that also includes special racing on Labor Day.
That’s five fewer days than its corresponding 2010 meet.
Larger fields attract more wagering, Hartman said. “We handle more on a 10-horse $4,000 claimer field than a six-horse field in a $100,000 stakes,” he said.
No stakes are scheduled for the seven-week run. Instead, Golden Gate will shift its purse money into claiming and allowance races.
“We expect our average daily purses to be up 10%,” Hartman said.
Hartman said he will know by the end of the year if Golden Gate has been selected by the UC for its new campus location.
The lab is expected to house its BioEnergy Institute, the Joint Genome Institute, and much of the Life Sciences Division that now occupy separate sites in the East Bay. Hartman said that ground on the new facility would not be broken until at least 2014, which should provide plenty of time "for a seamless transition."
Hartman said officials are scouting for a new track site in the East Bay Area. Because of the difficulty of finding such a site, he said afterward that a new track could be located as far away as Sacramento. The Stronach Group still owns a large parcel in Dixon, Calif., where a proposed track development by former owner Magna Entertainment Corp., Dixon Downs, was defeated in a referendum in 2007.
"Frank Stronach is committed to racing in Northern California," Hartman said in reference to The Stronach Group, which now owns Golden Gate Fields. "He has told me that personally."
Stronach proposed development plans for Golden Gate in the past to go along with the track, such as a hotel and entertainment and shopping complex, but has met firm community resistance.
"The big issue is that the business model is broken," Hartman said. "We're trying to fix that business model. Golden Gate Fields is 95% empty most days, so we're looking at the whole model. We want to build a new track right with the right amenities so more people will come. Now the questions are where will we be relocated and what will that business model look like."
He also noted there are other Bay Area candidates for the new Berkeley facility "and we may not be selected. There are six horses in this race."
Meanwhile, Hartman said the track will recruit trainers from Arizona, Minnesota, Washington, and Western Canada to ship horses to the Bay Area with hopes of boosting its equine population. If enough horses are available, the track will consider adding days to its fall-winter schedule.
A condensed calendar has some advantages, Hartman said. “With 22 days, we can have a promotion every single day of the meet. This is a seven-week experiment to see if it stabilizes our business.”
Those promotions include food truck festivals every Saturday plus special events aimed at college students and football fans.
Although the commissioners seemed to like the idea of fewer racing days, they voiced concern about the lack of stakes at the upcoming meet.
Said commissioner John Harris, “I like the three-day week, but to the owners and trainers in Northern California, stakes are important; it’s not the size of the purses but the black type. I’m concerned that Northern California racing in general could drift into oblivion without stakes support.”
Hartman assured the board that Golden Gate planned a stakes-heavy schedule this winter.