California: Longest Dark Period in 20 Years

By Jack Shinar

For the first time in 20 years, California racing will get a real holiday.

Racing takes a Christmas break after the Monday, Dec. 17 programs at Golden Gate Fields and Hollywood Park, and the action doesn't return until Dec. 26, when Golden Gate resumes and Santa Anita Park opens its traditional winter meet. The eight-day gap will be the longest such break on the state's Thoroughbred circuit since Hollywood Park began running a fall/winter schedule in 1981.

"Everyone needs a refresher," said Sam Spear, longtime spokesman for Golden Gate and a local radio show host. It will be the longest vacation from racing in Northern California since a six-day Christmas break in 1993.

"Bettors need to heal their wallets and the horses could use some time off," Spear said. "It makes Santa Anita a real opening again instead of just a switch over from another track."

Prior to the addition of the fall Hollywood meet, the racing schedule in Southern California was dark from the close of Oak Tree at Santa Anita in early November until the Arcadia track reopened for the winter meet the day after Christmas. With a seven-week gap, fans hungry for racing eagerly awaited the opening each year. Year-round scheduling took much of the luster from that Dec. 26 tradition.

California Horse Racing Board commissioner John Harris said this year's break occurred because Christmas falls on a Tuesday. "It's happenstance of the calendar," he said. Next year, there will be an ordinary three-day holiday break.

A member of the CHRB's Racing Dates Committee, Harris has advocated fewer racing days in order to improve field quality and size. He said he prefers that the state cut back to a four-day-a-week schedule rather than take long stretches without any racing. But resistance within the industry has prevented any cutback in dates so far.

"There are mixed opinions in racing on what's the best way to do breaks," Harris said. "Horses on the backstretch need to be taken care of every day. They're not like cars you can park in the garage and leave for a week."

Harris said it will interesting to see if the holiday vacation has any effect. "This will be a good experiment," he said. "The key is to have racing on days people want to come out."

Spear said he misses some aspects of the old schedule. Before year-round racing, Bay Meadows closed on Christmas Eve and the Northern California circuit was quiet for the strongest part of the rainy season until Golden Gate opened in late January. And during Southern California's down time, many of the top riders migrated north to boost their win totals for the year at Bay Meadows.

"It was great," Spear said. "Laffit Pincay used to come up here every year during that period to ride. The break down south was good for us."