Is California Saving Horse Racing?

Last year, the tracks were under intense scrutiny; this year, they run while others shut down

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

Joe Jackson once sang, that you “can’t get what you want, until you know what you want,” and in this year of the unpredictable, that rang true when the California Horse Racing Board denied Cal Expo’s request to shift from racing Friday and Saturday to Tuesday and Wednesday. That’s what the track wanted, or so it seemed.

There are many reasons for why these things happen and why the request was denied. On paper it seemed easy:  the track races two days per week and because of these special circumstances (COVID-19) they wanted to move the two days that they race.

There is always more to the story. Perhaps the CHRB denied the request because of revenue expectations and projections. Cal Expo has raced on Fridays and Saturdays for quite some time and because of that, the state knows what the track will generate and for perhaps that reason, didn’t want to take the chance by allowing the date changes. So, this is what we call the familiarity rationale.

Another reason is that, at some point, we will get back to normal and other tracks—like Buffalo, Northfield, Yonkers—will come back and re-establish themselves on those evenings. Why interfere with that familiarity. A track like Buffalo handles more on Wednesday than it does when it races on Fridays and Saturdays. Handle could suffer if it has to now compete with Cal Expo.

The fact the Cal Expo is still racing defies the odds. The state of California has been hit hard by the Coronavirus and Gov. Gavin Newson—not a horse racing fan—has pretty much ordered Golden Staters inside as much as possible.

Let’s give Newsom some credit here. There are two things we know about him: he’s not having President Trump over for dinner and he would shed no tears if horse racing ended. Yet, at the present time, he is playing nice with both the President and the horse racing industry.

Maybe that’s because right now, Santa Anita, Los Alamitos, Golden Gate and Cal Expo are making some money and paying some taxes to California coffers. We all are praying for two things—the virus to go away and for the economy to not disappear, so maybe that’s why Newsom is allowing the horses, pacers and trotters to keep racing.

In the end, maybe this can help the struggling sport of horse racing in the Golden State. We all know what happened in the winter of 2019-2020 when it seemed like a horse was dying on a daily basis at Santa Anita. The calls for its end were loud and clear, but this year, those calls have gone away because of this pandemic and deep down, human life will always be more important than anything else.

When we do get back to normal, perhaps Newsom may develop a new found respect for the sport of horse and harness racing. He may never like it, but when most everything was shut down in the state of California, horse racing remained and because it was the only entertainment in town, wagering on it increased.

It would surprise no one if the Newsom Administration reached out to those involved in horse racing and came to some sort of quiet agreement, or at the very least, an understanding. I could see a situation where the state quietly tells the sport to get its house in order with regards to safety, whipping and drugs but won’t not publicize every bad thing that occurs; a mutual understanding, if you will.

In exchange, the sport has to put real, measurable reforms in place. Last year’s Del Mar meet was a good beginning with more vets on site along with the scratching of any horse that might not have been 100 percent sound. That didn’t stop a horse from dying during the Breeder’s Cup Classic, but that was the only death that did occur over two days and 14 races.

It’s a funny thing—we have politicians say that they’re willing to die to save the economy for their grandchildren, but these are the same people that say one equine death is one too many.  We all know that you can’t have it both ways.

There is nothing good with the Coronavirus pandemic, but in some weird, twisted way, it may lead to a thawing between the California government and those that run horse racing in the Golden State.



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