After more than two and a half hours of discussion July 13 during a California Horse Racing Board Race Dates Committee meeting, a racing schedule for 2017 in both Northern and Southern California remained unresolved.
At the end of talks Wednesday afternoon at Del Mar, CHRB chairman Chuck Winner adjourned the meeting and said the stakeholders involved would meet in another two weeks to again discuss the issues in each region.
While industry stakeholders in the southern region of the state said they would likely be reaching an agreement soon and talks on the topic were finished relatively early in the afternoon, the northern dates disputes—between the state's fair circuit and Golden Gate Fields—took up the majority of the time.
The entirety of the Northern California debate revolves around the region's highly desired summer and early fall schedule, which has traditionally been allocated to the fairs.
In previous meetings on the topic, the California Authority of Racing Fairs proposed a schedule that cut Golden Gate entirely out of the summer—from June 24 to Oct. 17—while Golden Gate asked for a slightly larger chunk of the late summer and early fall, from Aug. 23 to Oct. 3 (in 2016, Golden Gate will run from Aug. 17 to Sept. 20).
Golden Gate amended its previous proposal Wednesday, moving its spring/summer meet's ending date to June 13 (from June 20). The move would allow the Humboldt County Fair meet at Ferndale to move forward one week to acquire a week of full host fees, which it has split with Golden Gate in 2015 and will again in 2016 because the meets run at the same time.
The Golden Gate proposal would also take two weeks of late-September and early-October dates from the Alameda County Fair at Pleasanton, which was awarded those dates from Stockton by the CHRB earlier in 2016.
Sherwood Chillingworth, director and vice president of the Oak Tree Racing Association that operates the Pleasanton meets, said at the meeting the Bay Area track deserves a chance to show what it can do with those dates before the CHRB considers moving weeks away from it. Pleasanton also ran from June 15-July 5 and is the only fair site to have two meetings on the schedule in 2016.
"We haven't had a chance to look at running (the new dates)," Chillingworth said. "If we can learn anything, before we make any decisions, we should see how that goes. I think after that is over with, we can sit down and talk about doing something else if we're not successful."
Scott Daruty, who frequently represents The Stronach Group's interests at CHRB sessions, has long called for moving fair dates to other parts of the year, even if they don't offer fairs during those times.
"Why are the only dates we talk about the fairs running between June and September?" Daruty asked the CHRB committee. "If Pleasanton wants a different meet—if Pleasanton wants a couple weeks, why don't we look at January? Why don't we look at March? Why don't we look at November? Why does it have to be the summer? Part of our issue is, we do run the whole winter, when it's cold and dreary at Golden Gate, and we would like to have some time for our meet to be in the nice weather.
"We have this crowd in the summer. Everybody wants to race in the summer. They want to race during their fair and then race another time—a second meet during the year? It seems to me, that shouldn't be in the summer."
CARF chief operating officer Larry Swartzlander advocated for the expanded Pleasanton dates going forward and Alameda County Fair chief executive officer Jerome Hoban said the future of racing in Northern California should involve more fair racing, not less.
"We've got to work this out, but they've got to understand that we're a business, too," Swartzlander said. "Shrinking our dates is not a solution."
A separate proposal by the Sonoma County Fair at Santa Rosa, which is no longer a member of CARF, seeks to move that fair's dates from the 2016 slate of July 27-Aug. 16 to July 19-Aug. 8. Santa Rosa is the only fair circuit stop with a turf course—though Pleasanton has and continues to flirt with adding a grass track, if it comes with more dates—and because it offers a desirable racing product, it got the support of Alan Balch, executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers.
"We, as horsemen, applaud Santa Rosa's proposal, because what has been said about Santa Rosa is absolutely correct," Balch said. "That's where the horsemen want to be and that's when they want to be there. They've made the investment in the turf course—long ago—and they should be rewarded for it and have their racing dates optimized."
As for Southern California, the dates debate appears to be less contentious and winding down toward an agreement.
Del Mar and Santa Anita Park's joint proposal submitted to the CHRB only includes six weeks of racing for Los Alamitos Race Course—a meet in September and another from Nov. 29-Dec. 19. Los Alamitos officials are intent on getting the eight weeks they have received since the closure of Hollywood Park in 2013, and owner Ed Allred said the Orange County track is also adding 120-150 stables, likely to be paid for by the Thoroughbred Owners of California. TOC chief executive officer Greg Avioli also agreed Los Alamitos should retain its eight weeks of racing.
"We're much closer than we were a year ago and I think we're close to solving that part of the problem," Allred said of negotiations. "Eight weeks of Thoroughbred racing—we don't care when it is. We assume we'll get the (Los Angeles County Fair dates from Fairplex Park) and whatever the rest of you folks want to get together and throw us five weeks—we'll take it."
In both regions, there appears to be a desire for three-year rolling agreements, which can be adjusted after that time period, to avoid the year-to-year toiling that has occurred.
"We have to be able to sit down and look at the long-term," Swartzlander said. "When I first came to CARF in 1999, I asked, 'Where's our strategic plan?' Now, it's 17 years later and we're still doing the same thing."