Fairplex Park was at the center of the California Horse Racing Board's attention once more Thursday. Just a couple of months after the CHRB turned down a proposed lease of the Los Angeles County Fair's end-of-summer racing dates to Hollywood Park, Fairplex issues were in the middle of things once more -- on a couple of fronts.
About 40 trainers and backstretch workers bused in from Pomona for the meeting in Monrovia to protest the loss of stabling funds that fair officials say will force the closure of the track's training facility for four months, starting in April.
And the Oak Tree Racing Association, which battled the LACF over the dates issue last year, is negotiating a dates change of its own, hoping to add two days of racing on Sept. 27 and 28. That weekend would include four major preps for the Breeders' Cup, which will be held Oct. 25 at Santa Anita at the end of the Oak Tree meet. However, those extra days in September would overlap with the closing weekend of the 17-day Fairplex meeting.
Neither issue was resolved Thursday, but CHRB chairman Roger Licht said the commission would be willing to mediate the training fund dispute with the Thoroughbred Owners of California, who control the funding for stabling facilities. LACF chief executive officer Jim Henwood and Oak Tree vice president Sherwood Chillingworth went into a meeting soon after the CHRB session to see if they could solve their differences on the overlap issue.
"I think that we're trying to do here is not just good for Oak Tree, but for racing and California racing," Chillingworth told the board.
He said that Oak Tree is willing to compensate LACF for the loss of parimutuel handle and concessions, but not to the level of $700,000 to $1 million that Fairplex is seeking.
"That's an impossible situation," Chillingworth said of the LACF request. "We can't give it all away (proceeds, much of which goes to charitable causes) just for a couple of days of racing."
He said ESPN would like to telecast the stakes races -- the Lady's Secret, Yellow Ribbon, Oak Tree Mile and the Oak Leaf -- in East Coast primetime if they fall on that September weekend.
After the meeting, Henwood said overlap on that weekend would not only reduce handle an estimated 40 percent, but also hurt the fair's overall attendance, which depends on a good racing crowd on those days to bring in families. The fair has scheduled on that weekend its top races, the Pomona Invitational and the Pomona Derby, both worth $200,000. Henwood said he hoped to get Oak Tree to consolidate its four Breeders' Cup prep stakes into a single day.
"We're forgetting that someone else should be a party to this as well, and that's the company (Magna Entertainment Corp.) that stands to make all the money on Breeders' Cup Day," added Henwood.
If Oak Tree and LACF make an agreement, the state legislature would have to approve a change in current law to allow the additional racing days.
The training funds dispute arose last year following the TOC's decision to split money from the horseman's vanning and stabling fund between Fairplex and Magna-owned San Luis Rey Downs. The decision cost Fairplex about $750,000 and forced a three-month closure of the training facility. A number of trainers didn't return when Fairplex reopened, according to Gordon Amthor, a trainer at Fairplex for 23 years.
"Fairplex provides training facilities to more than 50 trainers and over 400 eligible horses," said Amthor, among many who spoke on the track's behalf. "To keep these trainers and horses training at Fairplex, full funding must be restored. If Fairplex is not fully funded, it will be closed for four consecutive months. If this happens, the California racing industry will be severely and negatively impacted. Approximately half of the horses and trainers will ship out or quit all together."
Fairplex officials find the situation galling because the vanning and stabling fund comes from revenue produced by satellite wagering. Fairplex reportedly generates more than $800,000 for the fund in 2002. San Luis Rey Downs doesn't have a satellite wagering facility.
Don Johnson, representing the TOC, said the vanning and stabling fund has been hit hard, including providing workers' compensation insurance coverage. He said the TOC is trying to find extra money to restore Fairplex to full funding.
"We realize how vital this facility is," he said.