Tim Ritvo, The Stronach Group's chief operating officer, said June 13 that closing Golden Gate Fields could be a possibility if changes are not made to a complicated simulcast issue in Northern California.
After a notice was sent Wednesday to horsemen of an "urgent meeting" June 14 about "the future of Golden Gate Fields," Ritvo explained what will be discussed regarding Northern California Off-Track Wagering Inc. (NOTWINC), which deals with brick-and-mortar simulcast operations in the region.
"The (California Horse Racing Board) has threatened our license if we do not operate (with NOTWINC), which costs the industry money," Ritvo said. "We want to inform the horsemen to get involved. Otherwise, there will be no more racing at Golden Gate Fields."
Ritvo also said the NOTWINC setup forces Golden Gate to "subsidize" the OTB network, which is primarily run out of the region's fair stops (Santa Rosa, as its own entity, and the California Authority of Racing Fairs).
"In the end, what's happening is (advance-deposit wagering) revenue is going up," Ritvo said. "Handle at an OTB is the only thing going down. The expenses to maintain those (OTB sites) continue to go up. It's a broken model from 2010, and no one has addressed it."
Ritvo also said the CHRB has made attempts to have the fair circuit fill Golden Gate's dates from Aug. 22-Oct. 2.
"CHRB has been in contact with CARF to run our dates. ... We have the CHRB unprofessionally going around and telling people we won't be getting our license if we don't operate the network," Ritvo said. "Even though we're legally within our right not to operate the network and fund it."
CHRB executive director Rick Baedeker said the accusations were "not accurate."
Baedeker said California law does allow for Golden Gate to opt out of NOTWINC, but that the track would have to negotiate its own deal with the satellite locations. He also said his contact with Santa Rosa and CARF, regarding potentially filling Golden Gate's Aug. 22-Oct. 2 dates, was only to prepare for the possibility Golden Gate would not have its meet application approved by the CHRB at the board's next meeting June 21.
"They have their race meet coming up, and we've heard, because of the simulcast (issues), they might close," Baedeker said. "That would be a six-week gap (with no racing) in the North, so I contacted CARF and Santa Rosa to see if they could fill a gap in the calendar if the situation arose.
"(Ritvo) looks at it as submarining him, but I'm preparing the (CHRB for its meeting)."
And does Baedeker believe the closure of Golden Gate Fields is on the table, considering another executive from The Stronach Group made a similar statement in 2015?
"I honestly don't know," Baedeker said. "I don't understand what their strategy is, but that's not my job. My job is to prepare for the meeting."
Ritvo emphasized he did not want to close Golden Gate, but that it wouldn't be possible to operate the track if the meet application can't be approved "with our conditions."
"We want to run. We want to run all year," Ritvo said. "We don't even mind if the fairs run the same time we do. We're looking to run more, but we're not looking to fund (NOTWINC)."
CARF executive director Larry Swartzlander views The Stronach Group's actions Wednesday as part of a "continued attack" on the Northern California fair circuit, and said Ritvo has tried to "buy" fair dates from both Santa Rosa and Pleasanton. Swartzlander views the recent spats between CARF and The Stronach Group, over dates and stabling, to be part of a bigger picture.
"It's clear what is going on. It's the continuation of the situation, where The Stronach Group wants to change the model of California racing," Swartzlander said. "They want their Florida model and their Maryland model to run in California. They have none of these organizations to deal with in Maryland or Florida—no CARF, no NOTWINC, no (Thoroughbred Owners of California), no unions. They feel they don't need them."
Ritvo didn't deny he'd like to use the Florida and Maryland models in California, and said he didn't try to "buy" dates from fair locations. He said he asked Santa Rosa officials if they would be willing to have their dates run at Golden Gate and have the two sites split the simulcasting money.
Swartzlander continued with an anecdote about a meeting he had with Ritvo and other California industry stakeholders.
"When they first showed signs of what they're doing—when Ritvo came out here—we were thinking, 'What's his plan?'" Swartzlander said. "The biggest criticisms I get when I'm at CHRB meetings is that we don't get along with Golden Gate. When I was at a meeting with (The Stronach Group's) Scott Daruty, (TOC's) Greg Avioli, and Ritvo—all the big hitters—I asked, 'What can we do to get along?'
"He said, 'Give me all your racing dates.' They want to get rid of us. So when does the CHRB draw a line in the sand?"
Ritvo doesn't shy away from his stance that he wants to run more dates, but said if Golden Gate were to run year-round, the track would allow horsemen based there to ship to fair sites. There are questions, however, as to whether the horse population in the region would be able to support two tracks running at the same time.
"The facts are we want to run year-round," Ritvo said. "We don't want to see the fairs go away. If they want to run the same time we are, we are fine with that. We'd be fine with horsemen shipping out and running at the fairs.
"But we want to run year-round. The industry would be better served. More handle—it's better for the whole thing."
Swartzlander agreed with Ritvo that NOTWINC was in need of changes, but would rather those changes be made through restructuring than Golden Gate withdrawing.
"I see their point and I agree that NOTWINC is an excessive bureaucratic institution, but is the solution to create another one?" Swartzlander said.
TOC president and CEO Greg Avioli issued a statement Wednesday night that not only got into the details of the issue, but also included information about legal challenges. According to Avioli's statement the 10 NOTWINC sites handled "$108.4 million, or 41% of total wagering in Northern California" in 2017 and "was responsible for purse revenue of $6.6 million, or 46% of the total purse revenue generated in Northern California."
"Although Golden Gate Fields made its decision to withdraw from the network in March, it has yet to present any economically viable or realistically implementable plan under existing law for replacing this handle in the event the network is closed," Avioli's statement said. "There are also complex legal questions regarding the ability of a live racetrack in California to operate without a simulcast network. As an example, Los Alamitos today filed a legal proceeding in the Superior Court in Orange County against the CHRB, claiming it has no legal right to approve Golden Gate's license application without the inclusion of the NOTWINC network.
"Until such time as Golden Gate Fields presents a viable plan to replace the purse revenue and commissions generated by the existing off-track network, the TOC strongly urges Golden Gate Fields to amend their application with the CHRB to include participation in the Northern California simulcast network."