Will Northern California Fair racing survive?

About the author – Dennis Miller has been in horse racing for almost 40 years in Northern California. Initially he started as a sportswriter covering horse racing for the Bay Area News Group – Oakland Tribune chain of papers. He covered stakes races at Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows, then handicapped and covered races at the Alameda County Fair during the summer. Upon leaving the paper he went to work as the horse racing publicist for the Alameda County Fair where he stayed for 10 years before stepping aside at the end of the 2019 Fair. Currently he works as the publicist for the Sonoma County Fair and writes horse racing stories for his golf lifestyle publication – ACES Golf. He started attending the horse races in Pleasanton in the late 1960’s and has been student of the sport ever since.

When the Alameda County Fair officially announced on May 7 that this year’s event was canceled, it meant that the three big Northern California Fairs – Alameda County (Pleasanton), the State Fair (Sacramento), and the Sonoma County (Santa Rosa) – were all canceled.

Among the main attractions of each of the Fairs are the horse racing meets. Each year they draw thousands of fans and introduce more people to the wonderful sport of racing.

The automatic assumption has been that horse racing went the way of the Fairs – canceled.

And while this may ultimately be the result, that is not where everything stands at this moment. All three Fairs at this point have not eliminated their racing plans and are weighing options of running meets with no fans, much the way current tracks that are running are doing across the country.

Running a racing meet with no Fair or fans would more than likely be a big financial loss for the respective Fairs and may leave many wondering why they would go through with such a plan.

The truth? They may not have a choice.

Racing dates in California, awarded each year by the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB), are a precious commodity and are not guaranteed. Each year all racing meets – the Fairs, as well as the tracks Santa Anita, Del Mar, Golden Gate Fields, and Los Alamitos – petition the CHRB for racing dates.

If there becomes an event such as the San Joaquin County Fair dropping horse racing, those dates became available. For the bigger tracks that run throughout the year, more racing dates means more money.

The Stronach Group (TSG) is arguably the most powerful group in horse racing, not just in California, but across the United States. They own and operate Santa Anita, Golden Gate Fields, Gulfstream Park (Florida), and Laurel (Maryland).

It is no secret that TSG craves the summer dates the Fairs have held for years. It is understandable why they would want them given that the summer dates are the most desirable.

But the Fairs have held them for years and have a strong political clout in the state. When the San Joaquin Fair dropped horse racing, TSG swept in expecting to easily get those dates.

It did not happen, and those racing dates were given to the Alameda County Fair and Pleasanton ran a Fall meet with no Fair for two years. It was a wonderful event and seemed like the beginning of a wonderful yearly event.

Instead it accelerated what may ultimately lead to the end of horse racing in California.

TSG did not like losing the dates to what they consider a lower level of racing.

But let us step back a minute. Before the extra race days were awarded to Pleasanton, there was an auxiliary year-round training facility at the Alameda County Fairgrounds.

It served as a place where trainers could keep and train their horses year-round, allowing them to keep them in one place, then travel to race at the tracks hosting the current meet.

Horse racing in Pleasanton goes way back and was part of the fabric of making Pleasanton the town that it has become today. I was raised in Pleasanton and back in the 1960’s and 1970’s it seemed like half the town were horse people.

The way the auxiliary tracks existed were in large part due to money paid by other tracks to help offset expenses. When Stronach lost the racing dates to Pleasanton, they stomped their feet and cried, saying they would no longer pay Pleasanton to be a year-round training facility.

They will not admit it, but if they had gotten those race dates, Pleasanton would still be a year-round training facility.

In the end Pleasanton was forced to close its facility, uprooting trainers and families that had been in Pleasanton for years. These trainers were faced with few options.

One, apply for stable space at Golden Gate Fields and move their horses there; Two, move your horses to another track outside of Northern California, possibly out of California, thus cutting into the dwindling horse population in the state; Or three, get out of the industry.

To me it was fringe criminal what was done to many of these hard-working, horse loving population. I know of some trainers who just threw in the towel and got out of horse racing. I also know of others that left Northern California, relocating to Southern California, and at least some that left the state.

California was starting to lose horses, as trainers were willing to leave the great year-round training climate of the state in order to get away from the rising cost of doing business in California – another story altogether – and closing down Pleasanton over the equivalency of a temper-tantrum did nothing to help.

Before I go any further, let me make it clear that I am certainly no fan of The Stronach Group and have repeatedly made it clear either in print, or in many of my handicapping seminars at the Fairs throughout the years.

But, they are hardly alone in sharing the blame for the demise of horse racing in California. The CHRB and the California Authority of Racing Fairs (CARF) are complicit in what may be the fall of racing in California.

Being a sportswriter for over 20 years allowed me the chance to cover multiple professional sports and get a good understanding of the organization of all the sports.

Horse racing may be the worst, most fragmented sport in the world. The main problem is that there is not one central governing body, allowing for individual states to mandate their own policies. The only sport as poorly organized is boxing and look how that turned out for one of the most riveting sports.

Is horse racing heading that way? I say without a doubt with the way things are set up. Money is the goal of major organizations and if it means sacrificing the hard-working people of horse racing, then so be it.

What makes it sad is the number of people getting hurt by these continual power plays. Horse racing was my favorite sport to cover because of the people working the sport.

The trainers, jockeys and track personnel are some of the most genuine, wonderful people you could talk to daily. There is little pretentious behavior. Sure, there are some that are a bit arrogant, but nothing like other sports. Russell Baze, the all-time leading jockey in North America, was based in Northern California and was one of the most approachable, level-headed athletes I ever covered. Baze went out of his way to talk with kids around the track and helped promote the sport whenever asked. A class act every year.

And it’s not just Baze. I regularly ask jockeys and trainers to be either a guest at a seminar or speak with groups of people and they never say no. If they have to back out at the last minute, they usually find someone to step in and take their place.

I have made life-long friendships from horse racing, friendships that I will always treasure. The people in charge locally at the Fairs share an undeniable passion for the sport. They bust their rear ends each year to take care of the horsemen and the horses. Class acts – all of them.

The people in the trenches at the tracks are hard-working, salt of the earth. They love the sport and most importantly, love the horses.

Now they all suffer because of the power struggles that are all motivated by money. No one wants to work together, and all want to be in control. Oh, you may hear some talking head say they want to work together, but that comes with the kicker that their way is the best way and everyone else should fall in line.

When TSG pouted their way to see Pleasanton lose its year-round training, CARF became adversarial, putting a wedge between the two organizations that will never be fixed.

I have felt for years that CARF needed reorganization or just be dismantled. Many agree. The Sonoma County Fair left CARF and opted to run its own meet, which they have been doing successfully for seven years.

Others have discussed leaving CARF, but never quite pulled the trigger on the move. That leaves us with two warring factions in Northern California that are hell bent on trying to take down the other, regardless of the ramifications.

Where does the CHRB sit on all this? To be honest, the governing body of horse racing in California has sat on its hands and seems to repeatedly tell everyone to work things out on their own.

In a time where we all have needed the CHRB to step-up, tell everyone to put on their big boy pants and get things back to normal, they have failed. They backpedal, delay, and do nothing to help the sport.

Recently, the CHRB pushed its May racing dates meeting back to June 11. Pleasanton and Sacramento have yet to secure racing dates and by pushing back the meeting, it would give Pleasanton about a week to start their traditional dates.

In other words, the CHRB has been gutless.

This all brings us full circle to where we stand now. The Fairs are applying for their racing dates knowing full well, whether they admit it or not, if they lose the dates, they may not get them back.

Once the vampires of TSG get their fangs on the summer racing dates it is going to be near impossible to get them back. Oh, TSG may pander to everyone and say they hope the Fairs can resume next year with racing, but if you believe that’s the way they feel, I’ve got some swampland in Florida I’d like to sell you.

One problem is that many influential people in horse racing will not speak out against the petulance of TSG for fear of reprisal. And the truth is, they are probably smart for doing so as they will feel the weight of reprisal.

I have been warned by numerous friends in the industry to be careful what I say over the years, but it has not stopped me before and it is not going to stop me now. I have felt the wrath of one organization, but I keep moving forward speaking out for the sport and the people in the trenches.

I love the sport of horse racing and the people involved, so I will continue to fight. It must be the right thing to do, isn’t it?

If the Fairs lose their dates, we lose out on the best way to introduce new fans to the sport. I believe each track has its own niche. The best future for horse racing in Northern California would be to go back to having Pleasanton as a year-round training track as a complement to Golden Gate Fields.

Hopefully, the horse population would begin to come back, and the sport could possibly flourish once again.

This is unlikely to happen, but I am least hoping it does so future generations of possible horse racing fans would have a chance to develop the appreciation for the history-rich sport of horse racing.

By Dennis Miller