By T. D. Thornton
As in past years, the concept of “compromise” was accentuated in the assignment of 2021 race dates by the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) at its Oct. 22 meeting.
But this year, crafting a statewide racing calendar based on cooperation took on even more importance. That’s because both the Southern and Northern California circuits have been significantly altered by closures and cancellations over the past 18 months due to several spates of equine fatalities, unseasonably wet weather, wildfires and the COVID-19 pandemic.
With all of those factors in mind, the CHRB approved a 2021 calendar on Thursday by a 5-2 vote that for SoCal assigns 32 weeks to Santa Anita Park, 13 to Del Mar Thoroughbred Club (DMTC) and seven to Los Alamitos Race Course.
The CHRB also assigned a Dec. 23, 2020-June 16, 2021 block of dates to Golden Gate Fields, leaving the second half of 2021 dates in the NorCal region to be determined at a later date based on how the pandemic affects the ability of tracks at various fairs locations to open or not.
The chief SoCal change will be the return of September racing at Los Alamitos following the Del Mar meet after a one-year absence. That license technically belongs to the Los Angeles County Fair, which previously ran the now-defunct Fairplex Park meet in that time slot.
So who were the winners and losers in the 2021 dates allotment? That depends upon how much history is applied to the equation.
Another factor is an odd quirk of the calendar whereby the CHRB usually awards dates for the next year that also include the final few days of the current year (because Santa Anita traditionally opens its long winter/spring meet Dec. 26). So the true number of racing weeks for 2021 includes a smidgeon of 2020, which adds a confusing wrinkle.
Representatives from Santa Anita, which is owned by The Stronach Group (TSG), told the CHRB they believe they are being slighted in 2021 race dates from a historical perspective.
They cited data that said from 2017-20, Santa Anita annually was granted 33 weeks of racing. Del Mar, they said, was awarded 11 weeks between 2017-19 and got boosted to 14 weeks in 2020. Los Alamitos, according to TSG, ran eight weeks between 2017-19 but had its allotment cut to five weeks in 2020.
Aidan Butler, who has dual titles of chief operating officer, 1/ST Racing, and president, 1/ST Content, for TSG, said, “I’m a little perturbed that we are losing a week at Santa Anita. I don’t know what more, from a racing association [standpoint], we could have done [after] genuinely trying to do things for the greater good of the industry as a whole.”
CHRB chairman Gregory Ferraro, DVM, responded by saying that “I actually think that historical dates are irrelevant in this discussion. We need to assign dates that are in the best interest of racing and the best interest of horse safety.”
Commissioner Wendy Mitchell pointed out that a year ago, when Los Alamitos had its dates allotment cut for 2020, the CHRB gave notice that it would thereafter intend to try a two-year approach for future dates allotments that would alternate which tracks got fewer dates each year.
“This year, obviously, I am personally not happy with the outcomes at Los Al [with respect to] the horse fatalities that happened there,” Mitchell said. “So I am certainly not trying to reward them through this calendar. And I do appreciate the work that was put in by Santa Anita over the last year-plus since the horse deaths there.
“[But] having said that, I think that the compromise that we’ve put together…makes everyone unhappy a little bit,” Mitchell continued. “[And] that probably means it’s a good compromise.”
Plus, Mitchell noted “Del Mar has had less fatalities,” underscoring that the CRHB is starting to give more weight to equine safety when assigning dates.
Commissioner Dennis Alfieri didn’t agree with how the schedule got worked out. He, along with commissioner Damascus Castellanos, cast the “no” votes on the race dates, which were voted on as a block, with Thoroughbred, Quarter Horse, and Standardbred dates all batched together.
“I don’t understand why we’ve penalized Santa Anita, to be honest with you,” Alfieri said. “Santa Anita has been above and beyond the call of duty” in terms of reopening under COVID-19 conditions and improving equine safety, “while they continue to hemorrhage there from a financial standpoint,” he added
Prior to the vote, Alfieri advocated for the CHRB to slice a week of racing off of either the Del Mar or Los Alamitos schedule to boost Santa Anita’s number of race weeks back to 33.
Representatives from the two key horsemen’s organizations in California said they had no beef with the compromise schedule put forth by the CHRB.
“We’ve got all sorts of challenges right now. We have to look at what’s in front of us a lot more than we look at where we’ve been,” said Greg Avioli, president and chief executive officer the Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC).
“We support the calendar [proposed by the CHRB] as the best compromise. It is not exactly what the TOC recommended, but it’s close. Mainly, you’re talking about one or two weeks either way for a couple of tracks,” Avioli continued.
“As to the point from both Los Al and Santa Anita about Del Mar getting an extra week compared to the past, the reality is, I think by any standard, Del Mar’s earned an extra week,” Avioli said. “They have been the safest facility in the state for two years. They have the largest fields…. They have such large fields because they take really good care of the owners.”
Alan Balch, the executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, said the way the 2020-21 calendar falls makes it difficult to make historical year-to-year comparisons. Otherwise, he added, the schedule seems “very logical.”
As in past years, the 2021 calendar was awarded in blocks that denote simulcast hosting status. The actual live race dates get finalized when each track’s license comes up for CHRB voting during the year.
The CHRB and several track representatives noted that the 2021 format allows for the inclusion of some breaks between race meets, which theoretically should translate to safer racing and larger fields.
“As someone that’s been in the trenches of trying to fill races for over 40 years, and given what we see in [horse] population of Southern California, I can’t impress upon [stakeholders] enough that…breaks are totally important to 2021,” said Tom Robbins, DMTC’s executive vice president for racing and industry relations. “Not just for the safety value, but for the product that we deliver.”
The 2021 SoCal dates are as follows:
Santa Anita: Dec. 23, 2020-June 22, 2021
Los Alamitos: June 23-July 6
Del Mar: July 7-Sept. 7
Los Alamitos: Sept. 8-28
Santa Anita: Sept. 29-Nov. 2
Del Mar: Nov. 3-30
Los Alamitos Dec. 1-14
Santa Anita (for simulcast status only, no live racing) Dec. 15-21