By Jeremy Balan
The California Horse Racing Board's Race Dates Committee took a step toward resolving a nearly six-month-long dispute regarding Northern California's 2017 schedule Nov. 16, with a recommendation that largely resembles the region's 2016 slate.
The proposal still needs to be approved by the CHRB's full board at the regularly scheduled monthly meeting Nov. 17.
Pushed forward during a committee meeting at Del Mar, the proposal has the Northern California fair dates for 2017 essentially the same in number and order as 2016. It calls for Golden Gate Fields to run until June 20, followed by Pleasanton (June 21-July 11), Cal Expo (July 12-Aug. 1), Santa Rosa (Aug. 2-Aug. 22), Ferndale (Aug. 23-Sept. 5, overlapped with Golden Gate), Golden Gate from Aug. 23-Sept. 19, Pleasanton (taken from Stockton, Sept. 20-Oct. 3), and Fresno (Oct. 4-17).
Because Sonoma County's schools have not finalized a 2017 schedule and the fair at Santa Rosa has no intention of running races during the school year, officials from the Sonoma County Fair have not committed to running all three weeks allotted in the proposal. If Sonoma decides to run two weeks instead of three, Ferndale would move up to run a non-overlapped week, with its second week of racing still overlapped with Golden Gate.
Rebecca Bartling, chief executive officer of the Sonoma County Fair—which is not a member of the California Authority of Racing Fairs group—advocated throughout the process to move her fair's dates fully into July to avoid the school-year conflict, and reiterated her point Wednesday. Bartling's proposals did not get recommended by the committee.
"I've tried to negotiate with CARF ... and each time CARF has said the only proposal they'll consider is the one that they have," Bartling said. "It's been frustrating for us to find some way to negotiate. ... We are the ones that did invest in a turf track."
California Thoroughbred Trainers executive director Alan Balch supported more racing at Golden Gate and Santa Rosa, the only fair-circuit stop with a grass course.
"I've been very repetitive on Golden Gate's importance to the fairs, and I renew that belief again today, but also the attraction of Santa Rosa," Balch said. "The point that Ms. Bartling made was important. When you have an extended period without turf races—six weeks on most of these schedules—it really doesn't serve the interest of California racing as a whole."
Balch also expressed immediate concern with the future of racing in all of California, in respect to field size and quality, and how those aspects support stakes races.
"(There is) an indication of stress in racing throughout the state," Balch said. "When I say racing is in danger, I don't say it lightly. When Santa Anita is in the process of considering having to have $6,250 claimers—which, there are people advocating that—I can guarantee you that is an indication right there of what the market is telling you about the horse supply in the entire state—not just in Northern California.
"In a sense, it's something we've never seen before in racing. There are more—proportionally—horses on the top end now than there are (for) all the races ... that it takes to generate purses for the stakes. In my 50 years, we've never seen that before."
In response, CHRB member Steve Beneto indicated lowering the bottom-level claiming prices in Southern California would severely impact the North, which runs that level of racing with regularity.
"If you run ($6,250 claiming races) at Santa Anita, you better padlock Golden Gate. I'll tell you that right now," Beneto said. "That should never happen."
"With respect, sir, there are lots of things that are happening that should never happen," Balch responded. "None of us thought we would ever see the day."