The dynamics of the closure of Golden Gate Fields

If you are connected to the Northern California horse racing community, then you will remember Sunday, July 16 of this year for some time.

It was that Sunday when it became public knowledge that The Stronach Group (TSG), owners, and operators of Golden Gate Fields, would be closing the facility that straddles Berkeley and Albany at the end of their work year – December 19, 2023.

If you are involved in any capacity with horse racing in Northern California, your phone blew up. I am not sure I have gotten back to all the text and voice messages I got in the first 24 hours.

Yep, there were that many.

At the root of the decision, at least what has been made public, is that The Stronach Group made the decision to move horses from Northern California to Southern California. The horses would go to either the Stronach owned Santa Anita Race Track or their private San Luis Rey Downs training center, the only auxiliary training center in California that operates all year and is approved by the California Horse Racing Board.

This in turn according to TSG would work towards the goal of increasing field sizes and adding another day of racing to the weekly calendar at Santa Anita beginning in January of 2024.

Initially the reaction of many, me included, was that this could be the death knell of horse racing in Northern California.

Then I stopped and thought about it, and everything changed. Golden Gate Fields shutting down is exactly what many of us have been hoping would happen for some time.

Now it appears to be a reality and instead of fears, we should be ready to embrace the opportunity in front of us.

It’s not going to be easy on several levels, but all the resources needed to be successful, personnel included, is there and can be achieved by everyone working together.

“I don’t look at this as the end of racing in Northern California,” said George Schmitt, a prominent owner/breeder of race horses. “I think the doom and gloom is being overdone. I look at it like a new beginning. If we do it right, this is a great chance for racing. But everyone must work together to make it work.”

And there is the key to not just keeping horse racing going in Northern California but making it better – working together.

Those two words have not always gone together when talking about horse racing, but they are necessary or by the first of the year we will be talking about NorCal horse racing in the past tense.

The California Authority of Racing Fairs (CARF) is the governing body for horse racing at the Fairs. Currently CARF runs the meets at Alameda County (Pleasanton), The State Fair (Sacramento), Humboldt County (Ferndale), and The Big Fresno Fair.

The Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa was formerly under the CARF umbrella but has been operating independently for years.

To save racing in Northern California – and once again in my mind to make it better – there must be one central organization driving the bus.

Horse racing across the nation faces some of its biggest problems because of the lack of a central governing body. Whoever owns race tracks has the power and in horse racing it’s about lining the pockets of those ownership groups – of which TSG is one of the biggest, most powerful in racing. These groups control the decision making.

The rules of horse racing can and often do change from state to state. What works in California, may not work in Florida. New York can have a different set of rules than Kentucky.

You get the idea? No central governing body means issues for barns that run horses in multiple states.

In Northern California at the present time CARF is the most logical organization to oversee driving the bus. I haven’t always felt that way and have been quick to point out issues I felt relating to CARF.

I haven’t been alone in those beliefs over the years but if we have the golden opportunity to all come together and make the best conditions for all of horse racing in Northern California, then we must take it.

There were several people I talked with about the current situation. Many of these were not in agreement regularly with CARF over the years, but to a person, have rallied together, joining me in my beliefs this is the best solution.

Larry Swartzlander, the Executive Director of CARF, has hit the ground running with the announcement of GGF shutting down.

“We already have the wheels in motion,” said Swartzlander. “We’re not losing horse racing in Northern California.”

CARF and Swartzlander already have a draft for horse racing in 2024. They also had a plan in place when previous rumors of Golden Gate Fields closing arose.

Every time before it was a bargaining ploy by TSG to get more race dates for GGF or force Pleasanton from being a year-round training center.

This time it seems legitimate that come December 19, there will be no more Golden Gate Fields.

The following are discussion points I have heard in the 24 hours since the news was announced about the closure. Understand that this is a living and evolving process, but I just wanted to give you an idea of the things being discussed.

Once again, these are just thoughts I have gathered from talking with several people inside the industry. People are working overtime to come up with a realistic game plan – and working together.

*One of the first things that would need to happen is for the Sonoma County Fair to come under the CARF umbrella. It was just a few years ago I was advocating for Pleasanton to leave CARF and work with Santa Rosa. Times have changed as have the circumstances and having Santa Rosa and their turf course back with CARF would make for the most powerful force moving forward.

*Sacramento would be the base of operations and there would be construction of a turf course at Cal Expo. There is a lot of barn space in Sacramento, as well as room to build more. On a biased level of course, I would want Pleasanton to be the base, but given the space available, Sacramento is the best option, and geographically it makes a lot of sense.

*At this time trying to build a turf course in Pleasanton would be cost prohibitive. It’s not the golf course as much as it is a simple matter of space. There is not enough room inside the track in Pleasanton to make a turf course. Given the current design, the turns would be too sharp. The only option would be to move the main track out, which would involve going towards the grandstand side, prompting major, expensive construction.

*Sacramento and Pleasanton would be year-round training sites, providing ample space for all the horses that were stabled at GGF. This also provides options for the owners/trainers to set up their operations.

*Have a 10-month racing schedule, taking most of January and February off. The racing would be spread between Sacramento, Pleasanton, and Santa Rosa, running shorter meets throughout the year, perhaps 3-4 weeks at a time.

*The amazing Humboldt County Fair in Ferndale would keep its dates and enjoy finally running a meet without conflicting with any dates at Golden Gate Fields. This would increase the field size for the race-crazy town of Ferndale.

*One item often overlooked is the “host track,” revenue that currently goes to Golden Gate Fields in Northern California. This includes all “Advanced Deposit Wagering (ADW)” as well as all off-track betting facilities from Fresno to the Oregon border. That percentage of revenue would now be coming to the Northern California racing operations. That is a big chunk of change, especially on Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup weekends of racing. This in turn will increase purses and help fund any infrastructure at the member tracks. There is a strong belief that TSG will be fighting to keep the GGF revenue stream but there is a confident group that will not happen.

*Finally, the yearly competition between GGF and the Fairs would cease to exist, and it would benefit both operations. Instead of fighting each other they would be free to face issues relating to horse racing. I think we can all agree there are plenty to resolve.

Hopefully this helps everyone understand better what is going on right now. This is a chance to reclaim Northern California as a place where horse racing is run by the people and for the people.

Having worked with so many of the people for years, they always have the best interests of the horses, owners/trainers, and fans in mind when they are working.

We have faced many obstacles along the way and there is sure to be many more to come. We have been given a chance to turn horse racing into a mutually beneficial sport for all involved.

It’s a chance we cannot screw up and it’s something where we need to check egos at the door and work together. Outside of TSG, the biggest obstacle we face is each other. That is something we all control and can make sure doesn’t get in the way.

By Dennis Miller