Northern California Horsemen Consider Breakaway Organization

About 200 Northern California horsemen have signed a petition supporting the formation of a new trainer/owner organization to represent them in negotiations with racetrack associations and others, saying they believe their affiliation with the Thoroughbred Owners of California is no longer adequate.

The organizers of the fledgling movement--who have not yet determined a name for the prospective horsemen's group--said they are in the process of drafting a position paper for the California legislature explaining the need for a separate organization. Current law recognizes only the TOC as the sole horsemen's representative, so a change would have to occur before a new representative could request certification from the California Horse Racing Board.

The new group has been reluctant to publicly discuss its reasons for taking action. Jim Ghidella, until recently the Northern California staff representative to the TOC for the past eight years, acknowledged his role in the gathering of signatures for the petition, which he said includes 90% of the region's leading owners and trainers.

"We've got a bunch of signatures gathered, that's all," Ghidella said. "It's a real longshot."

Ghidella noted that just three members of the 15-person TOC board of directors are designated for Northern California, and they were selected by the entire TOC membership, which is heavily weighted toward Southern California.

"They have a right to self-determination. It's their investment," Ghidella said of Northern California owners and trainers. "Even if only Northern California voted for the Northern California members, that would only amount to three of 15 (seats on the TOC board)."

Perennial top trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, who owns many of the horses he conditions in partnership--a common arrangement in Northern California--said he signed the petition. But after talking to the TOC since then, he said he isn't necessarily sold on the idea of the separate horsemen's organization if biases favoring Southern California can be worked out.

"I guess most of the people around here feel we aren't getting the proper recognition and representation from (the TOC)," he said. "Most of the guys think we should have our own representation. I'm willing to listen to both sides. I think that all points of view should be put out in the open."

Ghidella, who resigned from the TOC following conclusion of the Golden Gate Fields spring meet May 7, wouldn't respond to further questions, saying he was "not authorized to discuss it." He wouldn't identify any others involved in the movement.

TOC president Drew Couto blamed Ghidella, whom he called "a disgruntled former employee," directly for the formation of the separation movement and the conditions that caused it in the first place.

"It's something every organization goes through occasionally," Couto said. "We've overlooked some things in Northern California. But that was mainly because of what (Ghidella) was telling us, 'Everything's fine.' He would say, 'You know trainers, they just love to complain.' Then I began to tell him that, 'No, that's not what I'm hearing. People are upset.' Then he gets pressured and leaves the job and immediately begins telling everyone, 'See, the TOC doesn't care about you.'

"We've hired new staff, and we're out there talking to people. We heard that people were upset about representation but what they don't realize is that in four of the last six years, the TOC was chaired by a Northern Californian. We're listening to the key complaints."

Couto said horsemen want something done about the main track condition at Golden Gate, where breakdowns are said to be all too frequent. Others, he said, are calling for a reduction in the purse for the San Francisco Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IIT), which was $400,000 this year. The race is Northern California's only grade II stakes.

But Couto said it would be a mistake to divert too much stakes money into the overnight purse account, a position with which Hollendorfer agrees. Stakes are needed to boost marketing and press coverage of racing, Couto said, while pumping up the purses for bottom level claiming horses is "asking to kill racing in Northern California."

The region needs a continuing influx of new horses, he said.

"Total horse inventory keeps shrinking; it's a downward spiral," Couto said. The TOC favors boosting purses for maiden and allowance races, he said, "so people who make the investment in new horses can get back that investment."