By Tim Hunt
Big, bad changes for fairgrounds racing communityUploaded: Jan 31, 2017
The game changed big time for the horse racing at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton and likely for horse racing in Northern California on Dec. 31, 2016. On that day, the fairgrounds track officially lost its designation as a training track.
Last fall, the California Horse Racing Board had decreed that the Pleasanton fairgrounds facilities will no longer be designated as an auxiliary training track for Golden Gate Fields in Emeryville. The board decided that there were plenty of stalls at Golden Gate (about 1,500) to accommodate all the horses actively racing in Northern California and designating Pleasanton as an auxiliary training facility was no longer necessary.
Pleasanton had been designated as an auxiliary facility since Bay Meadows in San Mateo closed in 2008. It received about $7,100 per day to reimburse expenses. Prior to that time, Golden Gate and Bay Meadows dominated the year-round racing calendar outside of the summer county fair racing season. When one track was running, the other was the designated auxiliary track and received a steady stream of revenue from the state.
The state board’s racing fund takes 1.25 percent of every dollar bet at a California track into its fund. It has used some of that fund to pay expenses for tracks that serve as training facilities. Technically, these are designated only for horses actively racing, but the racing secretaries who control the stall assignments have routinely allowed “baby horses”—the two-year-olds in training) to be stabled with the racing horses.
Before the auxiliary track plan, the two-year-olds were worked into shape at private tracks around the state. Once the state board started funding auxiliary tracks, they replaced the private tracks because private tracks need to charge fees to cover costs, while trainers could stable and train their baby horses free at auxiliary tracks.
So, for the fairgrounds, this means it will be open for training only prior to its June/July three-week meet during the county fair and its two-weekend fall meet.
For Golden Gate Fields, it means $2 million into its coffers, half to purses and the other half to the bottom line.
For trainers, it means tough decisions. Go to “free” wood-framed, rat-infested stalls at Golden Gate that might accommodate the two-year-olds as well as the racing horses or go pay to a private track for their “babies” or move out-of-state.
California’s state-funded training money is unique in the country. Of course, so is California—not talking politics here. In California, trainers must pay $20 a bale for alfalfa to feed their horses most of the year. In Kentucky—with its summer rains—grass grows rapidly so horses can be fed with natural pasture. The economics are clear.
The Pleasanton fair still has some hands to play according to CEO Jerome Haban, the source for this post. While Golden Gate may assume it will be the auxiliary track during the fair racing season, the racing fairs association could band together and establish its own auxiliary tracks (say Pleasanton and Santa Rosa).
That supplies some leverage in the state discussions with Golden Gate Fields, but also could irritate—to say the least—the trainers who stable their horses “free” year-round at the Emeryville track who could be forced to move to Pleasanton or Sacramento during the summer.
Those discussions will take place over the next couple of months.
Meanwhile, Jerome has kept the Pleasanton track staff intact to clean the barns and do needed maintenance to its concrete-block stables. They plan to have the facilities in great shape when the horses return in May or April (date to be determined).
It’s a dramatically different situation for the track workers, many of whom lived in the stables or the fairgrounds trailer park. Their work site has shifted from a wonderful community with great schools to Emeryville and they face either a relocation or a daily commute. Neither is a welcome choice.
It may have been a business decision for the racing board, but it was one that will impact these families greatly and not for the better.