Northern California Fair Dates Resolved

Ferndale issue divides California Horse Racing Board in a 4-3 vote.

The California Horse Racing Board finally gave approval to a Northern California fair racing dates program for 2010 during its meeting at Santa Anita Park Jan. 15, though not everyone was happy with the much-delayed action.

The summer fair schedule, endorsed by board chairman John Harris, was approved by a 4-3 split vote, with vice chairman David Israel and commissioners Jesse Choper and Bo Derek in opposition.

The schedule includes five days of non-overlapped racing from Aug. 18-22 at the struggling Humboldt County Fair in Ferndale, near Eureka in the extreme northwest portion of the state. Humboldt will also race simultaneously with Santa Rosa for four days, Aug. 12-15. Opponents of the board's decision favored an earlier start to the Golden Gate Fields summer meet during Ferndale's second week in order to take full advantage of simulcast opportunities during a critical portion of the popular summer season at Del Mar.

Representatives of the state's recognized trainer and owner groups, the California Authority of Racing Fairs, and the Pacific Racing Association, which operates Golden Gate Fields, opposed the decision to grant Ferndale the week without competition in the north. They argued that most horsemen would not be willing to support the program in Ferndale because of the expense of shipping there and low purse levels.

Charles Dougherty, representing the California Thoroughbred Trainers in Northern California, called it "a recipe for disaster" and argued that Ferndale needs to widen its bullring track and expand its stabling capability before trainers would fully support racing there.

"We're talking about doing all we can to save racing in Northern California," said Robert Hartman, general manager for Golden Gate Fields. "We're in trouble there."

Hartman said wagering handle in the north will decline dramatically during the non-overlapped week. "I see what's going on with out backstretch during our (current) meet. Owners are dropping out. What they don't need is a 40% haircut in purses for that week."

Stuart Titus, general manager of the Humboldt County Fair, told the board that "everything points to Northern California not being able to race simultaneously" given the state's horse shortage and a declining level of support personnel. He said he was only hoping to have the same opportunity for success as the other racing fairs.

"We have been able to just get by (in recent years)," he said, noting that he was required to get purse assistance from CARF last season.

In backing Ferndale, Harris cited the long history there -- this will be the fair's 114th season of racing -- and said he felt having at least one week of non-overlapped Northern California racing was a sound idea. He said it will help keep the colorful racing site alive and provide it with needed revenue as the host track. He said Ferndale has a wonderful fan following and provides unique opportunities for some segments of the horse business.

Harris also said the five days lost at Golden Gate would be a plus during the decline in horse population that would help the track build field size for their late-August meet, which includes Labor Day.

The 2010 racing calendar in Northern Calendar began Dec. 26 with the winter meet at Golden Gate Fields, which lasts through Feb. 21 (38 days), immediately followed by a 77-day spring meet at Golden Gate (Feb. 25 through June 20).

The fair circuit kicks off June 16 with a five-day meet in Stockton (through June 20), followed by stands in Pleasanton (15 days, June 23-July 11), Cal Expo (10 days, July 14-25), Santa Rosa (15 days, July 28-Aug. 15), Ferndale (nine days, Aug. 12-22), Golden Gate (27 days, Aug. 25-Oct. 3), and Fresno (10 days, Oct. 6-17).

The year concludes at Golden Gate with a 45-day fall meet (Oct. 20-Dec. 19). Golden Gate will race a total of 187 days. The Southern California racing schedule for 2010 was approved in November.

In other action, Harris opened a discussion on random drug testing of jockeys. He said any such program would be designed “for the safety of all racing participants” and without any “unwarranted intrusions” on individual privacy.

Barry Broad, an attorney/lobbyist who represents organized labor, including jockeys, said California jockeys have expressed some resentment about being singled out and would look more favorably on a random drug testing program that included other licensees. But he said they are not fundamentally opposed to being tested provided it is done the right way – based on federal guidelines for “millions of employees across the United States who are routinely tested.” He volunteered to participate in a working group to develop such a program.

A rule mandating the use of so-called "popper" whips was approved. The whips are considered “kinder and safer” for horses because they are padded at the end and have other features designed to protect horses. This rule, which still must be reviewed by the Office of Administrative Law, will likely go into effect in April. In the meantime, in cooperation with the Jockeys’ Guild, all California Thoroughbred racing associations are requiring the use of alternative whips in their races.

The board approved the application of the San Bernardino County Fair in Victorville to relocate its simulcast wagering facility into a smaller, renovated building on the fairgrounds. Fair CEO Ken Alstott said the move would result in better service to patrons and keeping the satellite open by reducing operating expenses. The amenities include new central air conditioning and heating, new large-screen LCD televisions, and improved parking. The move is scheduled for Jan. 21.

Southern California racing secretaries reported that Thoroughbred inventory has decreased from about 4,000 to a current horse population of about 2,800. As a result, field size is dropping and tracks are offering cheaper races to help fill cards. They attributed this to many factors, including a poor economy and a declining foal crop in California. They could offer no quick fixes for the problem.

An increase of $10 to jockey fees for losing mounts, pursuant to state law, was approved. The old fees ranged from $55 to $115 based on the gross purse of the race. The new fees make the range $65 to $125.

The board also approved an agreement between the Thoroughbred Owners of California and the Los Angeles Turf Club modifying the distribution of revenue from Advance Deposit Wagering by directing a slightly higher percentage to simulcast facilities and slightly less to racing associations and purses.