For the second time in 2017, the California Horse Racing Board's Race Dates Committee bandied about the idea of restricting the amount of racing dates in the state, and again roundly faced opposition by industry stakeholders in attendance.
In May, the Race Dates Committee discussed the radical idea of a single circuit in the state, rather than separate circuits in the northern and southern regions. On July 21 at Del Mar proposed calendars featuring new "dark days" (dates in 2017 that would not run in future years) on the Southern California circuit were presented.
CHRB executive director Rick Baedeker presented three calendars that would cut down 18-19 racing days, with the target of increased field size as the main objective.
"The commissioners asked for new ideas—fresh ideas," Baedeker said. "I decided to come at this from the perspective of the racing fan and the racehorse. It's been said here that the last year (has been) an anomaly, but short fields have been around for some time and the quality of those fields has deteriorated over the last several years. I don't think anybody can argue that point.
"I constantly hear that, without multi-race wagers, the races would be unbettable, and I don't think there's any denying that. We've also heard from veterinarians that the horse population needs a break. We race all year, every year. I looked at the calendar from that perspective, with the understanding it would probably annoy everyone in this room in one way or another."
Two proposals called for a week off from Southern California racing from March 1-4, in the middle of Santa Anita Park's six-month meet to start the year. They also eliminated Thursday racing in the months of June, September, and December, and put a week break in between Santa Anita's meet and Del Mar's traditional summer meet. One proposal also cut three Wednesday racing dates from Del Mar's summer schedule.
Representatives from the Thoroughbred Owners of California, Santa Anita, and Del Mar expressed a desire to let the current three-year dates agreement play its course without making what they felt were unneeded changes.
"In general I believe we should try something for a while, stick with it, and see if it works. ... Until we see a better system than that, to change things just for the sake of changing things is not appropriate," said TOC president and chief executive officer Greg Avioli.
CHRB member George Krikorian pressed Avioli, and stressed a need for change.
"We're losing tracks, we're losing stalls, and we're losing opportunities," Krikorian said. "We need to look to the future and come up with something that is stabilized going five, 10, 20 years."
It was a common theme throughout the meeting for Krikorian, who also made the suggestion to consider the single California circuit in May.
"If you don't make changes and the ship is sinking, you're going to drown," Krikorian said. "To me it's questionable as to what would be better until you try it out. ... We're here to talk about trying to be proactive, as opposed to being reactive in what we can do, because the trend has been and continues to be reduction of inventory—in the North and the South—and reduction in field sizes. That's just not a healthy situation. We're talking about what we can do together to change that."
Santa Anita racing secretary Rick Hammerle was one of the opponents to the racing schedule changing in Southern California, but pointed to the unique challenges the region faces to "put the show on," as opposed to other major circuits, which have extended downtime at tracks he considered to be less consequential.
"In California we're expected to put the show on for 10 months," Hammerle said. "Every weekend we have stakes races—we have allowance races to put on—and we don't have that break every other circuit has. So our 3,000 horses are not the same as (the horses) the other circuits have.
"They don't have to put the show on week after week after week. That's why our circuit is different than anywhere else. We put the show on every week."
California Thoroughbred Trainers executive director Alan Balch not only opposed a single circuit and the potential of cutting dates, but expressed a desire for more racing dates through the recruitment of more horses.
"Golden Gate (Fields) or whoever is racing in the North—including the fairs—aligned with Southern California (provides) some level of racing for every level of horse in the sport," Balch said. "That is extremely important, because field size would not necessarily increase significantly with any closures in Northern California. I say that because our biggest field size every year is at Del Mar, when we have five racing days a week and the fairs are racing up North at the same time.
"Field size—while I agree is very important—it is not the only thing. We have to look forward for 2- and 3-year-olds to have a full, elaborate program for owners and breeders. That's how racing is going to survive and prosper.
"We don't have close to the number of stalls that we really need to develop horses, so we can have greater field size in our racing. I know that's not a popular thing to say and we've made some mistakes, but we need not to be talking about three days a week. We need to be talking about what we need to do to get back to five days a week, not just at Del Mar, but at other places and other times. The way to do that is to expand capacity of stabling. That's when racetracks start to make money."
At one point during the meeting, Baedeker asked a question of Avioli, who opposed cutting certain weeks of the year down to three racing days.
"What about what the customer wants?" Baedeker asked, referencing frequent complaints from bettors about the short fields at times during Santa Anita's most-recent meet.
"It's a balancing act," Avioli responded. "We've talked about this in our board meetings. Around the country the quality looks better. No question about it. The fields are better, the racing looks better, and handle goes up on those days. So it's a challenge. I guarantee you, if you only ran two days, we'd have even better fields and higher quality, but at what point in time do the underlying economics (factor in)?"