By Emily Shields
Horsemen at Golden Gate Fields were surprised June 13 with notice of a meeting to address growing concerns that the Berkeley, California, track will close over a complex simulcasting dispute.
The Stronach Group, which owns and operates Golden Gate, gave a 90-day warning in March that they planned to withdraw their simulcast signal from Northern California Off-Track Wagering Inc., which runs 10 satellite betting facilities. Golden Gate has been subsidizing the network, which “handled a total of $108.4 million or 41% of total wagering in Northern California,” in 2010, according to a released statement by Greg Avioli, the President and CEO of the Thoroughbred Owners of California.
Because of the withdrawal, the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) may not renew Golden Gate’s license for racing later this year, covering the dates from Aug. 22 – Oct. 2. If the application is not approved, The Stronach Group’s Tim Ritvo has noted that the Bay Area track could shut down.
Ritvo did not attend the June 14 meeting, which was hosted by Golden Gate’s General Manager David Duggan and P.J. Campo, the Vice President of Racing for The Stronach Group. They spoke with local owners and trainers about Golden Gate’s future, urging them to attend the CHRB meeting June 21 at the Alameda County Fairgrounds.
“At the meeting we simply reiterated our position with regard to the model that exists in California,” Duggan said. “We told the horsemen that we wish to change the model, that it is broken and has been broken and documented since 2010. That is the message we delivered to the horsemen; they took it reasonably well.”
But at least one horseman feels uneasy.
“I don’t want us to be forced into the middle,” said trainer Blaine Wright, who is based out of Golden Gate. “This is between two companies, and we as horsemen shouldn’t have to stand up for one or the other. I would love to see year-round racing at Golden Gate, because I believe in racing where you are training, so I’m for The Stronach Group and support them. But it puts the horsemen in a bad bind to tell us to go to the meeting next week and speak up about this.”
Dates for the Northern California circuit have already been a contentious subject as The Stronach Group continues to seek year-round racing at Golden Gate, which could come at the expense of the fair circuit. The long-standing summer tradition sees racing bounce between Pleasanton, Cal Expo, Santa Rosa, Ferndale, Los Alamitos, and Fresno, which Wright notes can be logistically difficult for trainers and their staff.
“The fair circuit is fun, but it’s problematic because you’re limited in the racing,” Wright said. “But the fairs do offer a stakes schedule that Golden Gate can’t compete with.”
The Stronach Group has contended they would like to race concurrently with the fair circuit, but questions remain over the California horse population’s ability to support simultaneous racing in the area.
“I’m sure that the CHRB meeting next week will be interesting,” Duggan said. “They know what our stance is.”
Avioli’s statement continued, “Until such time as Golden Gate Fields presents a viable plan to replace the purse revenue and commissions generated by the existing offtrack network, the TOC strongly urges Golden Gate Fields to amend their application with the CHRB to include participation in the Northern California simulcast network. The TOC pledges to continue to work with The Stronach Group, the CHRB and other parties on underlying economic and structural issues to improve the economics for both the track and horsemen for racing at Golden Gate Fields.”
The purpose of the meeting was simply to deliver information to the horsemen, but still carried a frustrating element.
“We certainly got surprised by the news,” Wright said. “Why weren’t we talking about this six months ago?”
He referred to a stabling issue resolved earlier this year, where executives from Golden Gate Fields originally stated the barns would be closed down during the fair circuit. In March, Golden Gate reversed their stance and reached an agreement to remain open.
“Once again, we are in panic mode all of the sudden, which is what we don’t appreciate about it,” Wright said. “But for me personally, I want to run where I’m stabled.”