By T. D. Thornton
Northern California horsemen, racetracks, and fairs remain divided and in disarray over the future of racing in the region. This led to a déjà vu stalemate at the Sept. 28 California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) meeting, mirroring a delay in setting dates that happened one year ago when the CHRB had to keep pushing back its establishment of a NorCal racing schedule.
By contrast, it only took a quick voice vote on Thursday for the CHRB to approve a slate of 2018 southern California race dates.
That’s because Santa Anita Park, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, Los Alamitos Race Course and the Thoroughbred Owners of California are in the second year of a three-year agreement pertaining to a template of year-round dates will remain in effect through 2019.
So except for a few minor changes related to how the calendar falls, the SoCal schedule will look pretty much the same next year as this season’s allocation of race dates.
Yet despite nearly two hours of testimony at Thursday’s meeting and a year’s worth of behind-the-scenes planning by stakeholders, the NorCal tracks and fairs (Golden Gate Fields, Pleasanton, Cal Expo, Santa Rosa, Ferndale, and Fresno) couldn’t present a similar unified agreement to the board.
So just like last year, the CHRB voted unanimously to put off its dates decision for the region by an additional month. The NorCal schedule will now be brought up for a CHRB vote at the October monthly meeting, “come hell or high water” said CHRB chairman Chuck Winner
None of the major sticking points have changed in the past two years in this complex, multi-sided issue: Long-term concerns about stabling, squabbling over prime race dates, the need to dovetail racing at fair venues with existing agricultural fairs expositions, the possible value of fairs in creating new racing fans, and the absence of turf racing opportunities for weeks at a time were all subjects that got debated without resolution once again, just like in 2016.
“I’ve listened to everybody, and you have to be really not hearing if you don’t really understand that the fairs circuit has difficulties in terms of accommodating one another,” said commissioner Madeline Auerbach. “All I know is is that everybody is not going to get what they want, and I also know that our job is to protect racing.
“And I have to tell you, that taking the [California Authority of Racing Fairs] proposal and utilizing it, I don’t believe that protects racing,” Auerbach continued. “You don’t have turf and I don’t want to hear what’s coming in the future…. We have to deal with today’s realities. We’re falling off the planet with this; we’re tripping over ourselves. This is a political football. A hot, political football. And we are being put in a very untenable position, and quite frankly, I don’t appreciate it.
“We’re being put in a vise where we’re going to make people unhappy,” Auerbach concluded. “And I would suggest to the people who are involved to sit down and really talk to each other and stop playing games with each other and think about what is best for everybody. I don’t think that’s been done yet.”
Regarding the economic difficulties that fairs are facing, Winner echoed the comments of several CHRB members when he added “this board is here because we’re a horse racing board. We’re not a fair board…. Horse racing is a big part of fairs; fairs are a big part of horse racing. But if the number of legislators who contact me about race dates would do something themselves to help supplement the fairs so that we–horse racing–doesn’t have to supplement the fairs, that would be a really positive step.”
Commissioner Alex Solis said “we keep going over the same arguments over and over. I don’t think it’s going to change anything.”
In other CHRB voting, commissioners unanimously approved the codification of the state’s microchip initiative, which started in 2014 as a pilot program. California is now out ahead of other states in terms of using tracking software and hand-held scanners to modernize pre-race identification, streamline the tracking of the backstretch population, and to assist the state in equine disease control.
Executive Director Rick Baedeker said 900 horses have already been “chipped” through the pilot program in NorCal, but 4,000 other horses statewide still need chips implanted.
The California program is expected to be fully operational within 12-18 months.
“We’re at the point now where we have to [hand over] the responsibility of this chipping process to the industry,” said Baedeker. “[Racetracks] are going to take it from here, and [the CHRB is] going to appropriately be in more of a regulatory/supervisory position… So far everybody has been very supportive. There’s a cost associated with this next step of about $50,000 for the chips and the readers. The industry has stepped up without objection.”
Horse owners and trainers will be provided with the chips, Baedeker said, “and they’re going to have the option to use their own veterinarian to implant the chips, or there will be a dedicated veterinarian that will also do this work.”
Beginning with the foal crop of 2017, The Jockey Club has required microchip implanting as a condition of registration in the American Stud Book.
Because of The Jockey Club’s mandate, “as the new-chip crops start arriving in a few years, [implanting] is all going to be automatic,” Baedeker said.
But California will be a step ahead of other states in terms of being able to read the chips and use the data for horse population inventory control on backstretches and locating horses for possible new initiatives like out-of-competition testing.
Separately, an agenda item about creating a CHRB claiming “jail” rule was not acted upon because of last week’s federal court ruling in Indiana that declared it was unconstitutional to restrict where and when horses can race within 60 days of being claimed.
“Rules aren’t the same from state to state, but chairman Winner decided that we would postpone consideration of this rule until we learn more about the [Indiana] ruling, whether or not it’s going to be appealed, and how our rule differs from that state’s and other states,” said Baedeker. “And we will seek an updated opinion from the attorney general’s office before moving forward.”