Multiple industry stakeholders provided radical proposals to change the 2018 Northern California racing schedule Oct. 25 during a California Horse Racing Board Race Dates Committee meeting at Santa Anita Park, but committee members only suggested minor modifications to the schedule for the full board to consider Oct. 26.
The suggested changes, in comparison to 2017's schedule, were to take away a week from the Alameda County Fair meet at Pleasanton (which had five weeks spread across two meets) and have all four of its weeks run consecutively (June 13-July 10); to add a week to Golden Gate Fields' late-summer meet (Aug. 22-Oct. 2); to allow the Humboldt County Fair meet at Ferndale to run one week unopposed with Golden Gate (Aug. 15-21) and one week overlapped (Aug. 22-28); and to cut one week off the California State Fair's meet at Sacramento (July 11-24). The recommended schedule can be adopted or rejected by the full board Thursday.
The recommendation came after a contentious discussion between several fair executives and representatives of The Stronach Group, which owns Golden Gate. CHRB chairman Chuck Winner expressed his displeasure that a compromise could not be reached by the parties in talks that have been going on for much of the year.
"Since you folks over the years have not been able to reach an agreement amongst yourselves, and since we are therefore having to make the decision for all of us, there are going to be some folks who aren't too happy," Winner said. "But that's just the way it goes, since you couldn't work it out to make yourselves all happy. We had to do the best we could, and we did it based on what we felt was in the best interest of racing."
The Stronach Group's Scott Daruty began the session with a bombshell. After distributing a proposed calendar that would have racing at Golden Gate Dec. 20-Sept. 4, he made an argument based on economics. Under The Stronach Group plan, the fairs would have exclusive racing Sept. 5-Oct. 2 and Nov. 28-Dec. 25, but Daruty said fairs could still have racing during Golden Gate's summer dates.
"The mandate for (the CHRB) is to do what is best for racing, and in our opinion the proposal we have submitted fulfils that mandate. ... We have this beautiful facility that sits on San Francisco Bay and the only time anybody gets to show up there for live racing is when it's 50 degrees and raining outside," Daruty said. "We would like to expand our meet into the summer months, when the weather is nice and people want to be outside. We've had that debate ad nauseam over the last couple years and frankly we've always ended up on the losing side of that debate."
Daruty continued, and pointed to per-day handle numbers he distributed to the board for each racetrack in Northern California. Golden Gate's more than $1.8 million daily average (from Oct. 20 of 2016 to Sept. 18 of 2017) clearly outperformed the fair sites, which were led by Pleasanton's more than $1.2 million average in 2017. Ferndale by far had the lowest daily handle average, at $424,773.
"We are in a dire circumstance up there," Daruty said. "The racing keeps slipping and slipping. The fields are not what we want them to be. The quality of racing is not what we want it to be. ... We think something drastic needs to be done."
Daruty also accused the fairs, which are represented by the California Authority of Racing Fairs (except for the Sonoma County Fair at Santa Rosa, which is independent), of not being concerned with improving live racing and only looking for lucrative simulcasting opportunities.
"This fight about dates is not really about running live racing and putting a product out there that the marketplace wants to bet on," Daruty said. "I think it is a grab for simulcast dollars. When some of the fairs come up and talk about wanting race dates, what they really mean is they want to be the simulcast host in Northern California and they want to collect all the bets on Del Mar and all the import bets on Saratoga."
Most of the fair executives at the meeting did not argue that their product was more economically viable than Golden Gate's, but instead pointed out the need for the circuit as a whole, and the value of racing at fair sites, which they said is part of the fabric of the region.
"There's no way, on a day-to-day basis, we can out-handle Golden Gate Fields. That's not the point. We're a compliment. If you want to call us a Triple-A club, that's what we are," CARF interim executive director Larry Swartzlander said, drawing a comparison to Major League Baseball's minor league system.
The most impassioned appeal came from James Morgan, special counsel for the Humboldt County Fair, who made an argument for history and sentimentality after California Thoroughbred Trainers executive director Alan Balch proposed a 2018 calendar without Ferndale entirely. He also asked the committee if the board was the "California Horse Racing Board or the Corporate Horse Racing Board."
"If we're going to give control of the dates to the corporate entity and forsake the communities that rely on the fairs for their perpetuation, then we (have) the Corporate Horse Racing Board," Morgan said. "And if that's your choice, that's your choice. But I think we have a higher level of responsibility when it comes to preserving these fairs that mean so much.
"I heard the CTT say, 'Well let's just get rid of Humboldt.' Sure, let's get rid of Humboldt. Why don't we cut down the Redwoods? Why don't we develop the beaches? Why don't we put condos in Yosemite? Let's just get rid of our heritage. ... Once you cut down a Redwood, it's not coming back. Once you close a fair ... you don't reopen it."
Balch's argument was based on the importance and viability of live racing in the region, which, in the CTT's view, would be better off without the meet at Ferndale.
"For the foreseeable future, fair racing will not be successful without a viable Golden Gate Fields, and we urge you to make every decision based on the current and future viability of Golden Gate Fields," Balch said. "We have a compromise that we think would potentially serve the needs of both without harming the fairs or Golden Gate irretrievably. ... Economically, we don't see the viability of Ferndale, frankly. We've all heard the expression of the 'tail wagging the dog.' Well, when the dates in Northern California are decided, not just by the tail but by the tip of the tail—we all love Ferndale, but this is an endangered industry, so we have to make decisions that will support the whole."
The committee also called on The Stronach Group's chief operating officer, Tim Ritvo, to speak to the organization's commitment to keeping Golden Gate open.
"We're truly committed to California and Golden Gate," Ritvo said. "What we're here for today is to try to fix the model—for ourselves especially and for the industry as a whole—that is broken. ... We've lost a lot of money (at Golden Gate) in the last 10 years or so. Some of it could be our fault. We'll look at all of that, but the first thing we have to start with is the right dates and the right opportunities for Golden Gate.
"We've been successful in other jurisdictions, breaking the model and rethinking things. Unfortunately times change ... and we have to look at things differently. ... Our commitment is there, but it has to make sense, the same for Santa Anita and Golden Gate. These properties are very valuable properties. These are not greedy people, but they want a fair return for property values."
California State Fair chief executive officer and president Rick Pickering was one of multiple executives who brought up statements made in 2015 by Keith Brackpool, an executive board member for The Stronach Group, who threatened to close Golden Gate if a proposed calendar was not approved.
"We were in front of the Race Dates Committee on April 15, 2015 at Golden Gate Fields, when Mr. Brackpool, representing the Stronach organization, told all of us that their goal was to take all the live racing product away from the fairs," Pickering said. "You made that very, very clear. ... That set a tone. We're asked to go out and cut deals, but that sets a tone ... that the other side's goals are to put the fairs out of business."