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CHRB Seeks to Reverse Decline at Satellites

Agency wants to put some bite behind standards at simulcast wagering facilities.

Seeing many former customers preferring to stay home, the California Horse Racing Board wants to woo fans back to the state’s simulcast centers.

But what happens if a satellite isn't fan friendly or flunks on ambiance? Meeting April 15 at Santa Anita, the board moved forward with plans to put some bite into its review process.

At present, there are no expiration dates on licenses for simulcast centers, most of which opened in the 1980s. Chairman Keith Brackpool suggested it was time for change even if that meant some sites losing their licenses.

“There’s a huge variance in standards,” he said of the facilities. “We have annual inspections but those inspectors are looking if sites are in compliance with our rules, not subjective (about attraction to fans).”

The board directed staff to establish a set of minimum simulcast center standards, including fan accommodations such as food service and seating. As well as time limits on licenses, those new rules would include a deadline for sub-standard facilities to rectify their shortcomings and a hearing process for the possible revocation of the simulcast license.

Commissioner John Harris warned that, if an underperforming or substandard simulcast center is closed, it may be hard to replace.

“Obviously, we want to have as nice of satellites as we can,” Harris said, “but it’s not like we have another site available across the street. This could be a suicide pact. We can’t take any away without good cause. It should be based on customers.”

Said Brackpool, “We’re trying to redress that decline.”

Introduced in the 1980s, California simulcasting has seen a steady decline in the last decade since the approval of advanced deposit wagering. That drop-off accelerated with the recession.

Typical is Santa Barbara’s Earl Warren Showgrounds, which opened its simulcast center in 1987. During the 2008-09 fiscal year, the facility drew 22,192 fans, a 17.8% decline from the previous year. Handle plummeted 22% to $6.53 million.  

Currently, California’s 32 simulcast centers are primarily at county fairgrounds and the state’s five major racetracks. Of the 84 fairs held in California, 22 host simulcast wagering year round, according to Rick Pickering, who chairs the state’s fair alliance. “We’ll do what we can to help,” he said. “It’s in all our best interest to better the satellite network.”

Chris Korby, executive director of the California Authority of Racing Fairs, pledged to take Brackpool on a tour of satellites including “some very good ones.”

“It’s not the good ones I want to see,” Brackpool told him.

In other business, the board approved 16 days of racing – one more than last year -- for the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton. That facility will host live racing June 23 through July 11 including two Thursdays (July 1 and 8) when it will be the only live Thoroughbred racing in the state. Hollywood Park, which hosts its meet during that same period, has opted to stay dark those two days.

But a proposal to combine summer fair racing meets into one entity was withdrawn until more details can be worked out between CARF, which represents the fairs, and the Thoroughbred Owners of California.