Richard Shapiro, chairman of the California Horse Racing Board

Richard Shapiro, chairman of the California Horse Racing Board

Tim Sharp

'Ticked Off' Shapiro Rips Slow Response

CHRB chairman says it was a mistake to allow industry reps to make contingency plans.

Industry stakeholders received a tongue-lashing from Richard Shapiro, chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, as the agency took its first swipe at a race dates calendar for 2009.

With Bay Meadows closed and Hollywood Park guaranteeing to stay in business only through the spring/summer meet, the coming year promises to be a transitional one for racing in the state. And it is not ready to meet those challenges, Shapiro told a sparsely attended board meeting Oct. 15 in Arcadia.

"The industry has not come up with any contingency plans for where it would race, and more importantly, where it will train" in the event Hollywood Park closes before its 2009 fall meet, Shapiro said. "The bottom line is we don't have a plan. You have held meetings, you've tried legislation and you've given us nothing."

Dates for 2009 will be allocated later this year.

But Shapiro called the situation "very disheartening," adding that "it was a mistake" to rely on the industry to come up with a plan.
"We're no further along than we were two years ago," he said.

Plans to expand facilities at Fairplex Park and Alameda County Fair in Northern California through legislation to increase take-out have run into problems in the state legislative committee on appropriations, the board learned, leaving few options.

Proposals from the northern half of the state feature significant changes to the calendar. Golden Gate Fields would take the bulk of Bay Meadows' dates, the overall racing schedule would be reduced by about 30 days and there would be a consolidation of the race meetings to fewer county fairs, including the elimination of racing at Vallejo's Solano County Fair. In the south, racing representatives were looking at Band-aids to get through 2009 were Hollywood Park to announce its closing.

Jack Liebau, president of Hollywood Park, said the Inglewood track, which has been the subject of development plans since Bay Meadows Land Co. purchased the site in 2005, would provide six months notice if it plans to close. He said he could not provide assurances that the facility would remain open to training after that.

The problem, as he has said repeatedly, is that the economics of racing make it unprofitable to operate, and the track has been unsuccessful in acquiring the elements, namely slot machines, that would turn that around.

"We've spent a whole ton of money trying to improve the business," Liebau said. "I don't know what's going to happen."

Shapiro responded, "Should we reach the fall meeting and Hollywood Park says it won't race, we very well may not be able to race those dates. The bottom line is we're left behind the eight ball, but I don't think the board can solve it."

He added, "I admit it, I'm really ticked off, okay?"

Sherwood Chillingworth, executive vice president of Oak Tree Racing Association, said it could accommodate an additional three weeks of racing, extending its fall meet to Dec. 1. Drew Couto, president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, said additional training barns at San Luis Rey and Fairplex, as well as greater use of Del Mar during its off-season, could ease the stabling issue should it become necessary.

Ron Charles, president of Santa Anita Park, said the problem is getting someone to commit to a plan for $50 million to $100 million for a racetrack project "when Hollywood Park could still be racing in three or four years." 
In the north, both the TOC and the California Authority of Racing Fairs are floating similar dates proposals. Including a 21-day summer fair stand that did not previously exist, Golden Gate would race a total of 176 days under the TOC plan. Four-day weeks would dominate the calendar from November through February, with a longer Christmas break running from Dec. 14-25.

The differences in the CARF and TOC plans are contained mostly in the summer fair dates.

"The north is in peril," Couto said, and needs drastic changes in its calendar if its going to have a viable future. The four-week summer meet at Golden Gate would be to raise revenue for the Pleasanton expansion project. That facility is expected to play a much larger role in Northern California racing in future years.

The TOC wants to move the two-week San Joaquin County Fair in Stockton back to its traditional June dates (June 18-28) after an unsuccessful run in September this year. It would lengthen the fair stands at Pleasanton and Santa Rosa to three weeks apiece, filling the Solano County void.

Concurrent meets between Golden Gate and Humboldt County's Ferndale location would operate for two weeks in August and the Golden Gate fair meet would extend to Labor Day (Sept.7).

The TOC plan would switch Sacramento's Cal Expo meet to Sept 9-27, meaning it would not be in operation during the state fair, an idea that met immediate resistance from Shapiro and vice chairman John Harris.

Harris called such a move "a grave mistake."

Norm Towne, a lobbyist representing Cal Expo, said the Sacramento facility would prefer to begin its meet Aug. 21, which would conflict with the TOC's plan for Golden Gate. Towne also noted that an expanded role for racing is being considered in Sacramento as part of a wider discussion on the building of a new NBA arena for the Sacramento Kings on the Cal Expo grounds.

"At some point, the fairs are going to have to get into the major leagues," Towne said.

Charles Dougherty, representing the California Thoroughbred Trainers in the northern part of the state, complained that Cal Expo's backstretch was "deplorable" during this summer's meet, contributing to a number of horsemen staying away. It was the first mixed-breed meet in four years at Cal Expo, which is home to year-round harness racing.

The northern plan would conclude the fair season at Fresno Sept.30-Oct. 12.