Southern California's racing calendar for 2024 will nearly mirror this year's dates template, with the exception of Del Mar Thoroughbred Club being awarded a fifth week at its fall meet to dovetail with that track's hosting of the Nov. 1-2 Breeders' Cup.
But several California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) commissioners who voted in favor of next year's SoCal schedule at the Aug. 17 monthly meeting made it clear those dates allocations were not to be considered a “rubber stamp” approval that couldn't change at some point in the future.
That caveat was relevant because of the uncertainty unleashed upon the statewide industry July 16 when 1/ST Racing, which owns both Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields, announced that Golden Gate would cease racing at the end of this year.
On Aug. 16, a 1/ST Racing executive said at a meeting of the CHRB's race dates committee, which reports to the full board, that the company might be willing to push back Golden Gate's closure by six months, to June 2024, pending discussions with industry stakeholders about how to best re-work the NorCal schedule in a way that doesn't harm the $30 million investment the company is making to improve SoCal racing.
That Wednesday news about Golden Gate's possible six-month reprieve prompted differing opinions on Thursday between the California Thoroughbred Trainers (CTT) and the Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC) about how the CHRB should handle its scheduled agenda item that dealt with the awarding of the '24 SoCal dates.
Alan Balch, the CTT's executive director, advocated for the CHRB to hold off on awarding the '24 SoCal dates.
“We believe the entire state is interdependent,” Balch said. “We welcomed the [1/ST Racing] suggestion [Wednesday], not only that they would consider extending northern California at Golden Gate, but that they supported additional racing in the future in Northern California after the closure of Golden Gate. Since the state is integrated, because horses run [on both northern and southern circuits], we strongly urge this board not to allocate southern California dates given the pendency of potential legislation, and for many other reasons, until all the stakeholders can get together [to work out a plan].”
Bill Nader, the TOC's president and chief executive officer, said that it was his group's belief that the “absence of insight in knowing what the north might look like didn't really influence the south.”
Thus, Nader continued, it would be “prudent” to award the SoCal dates on Thursday in order to give “the rest of the country some clarity and completeness that California is still strong and has a vision leading into 2024.”
CHRB commissioner Thomas Hudnut said he thought the CTT's idea had merit because delaying the awarding of dates to Santa Anita could be used as an aid in negotiating how 1/ST Racing might help the industry absorb the massive gap it is creating in the NorCal schedule.
“We can't force dates on anybody. But we can withhold them,” Hudnut said. “And I think there is some merit in the suggestion of the CTT to avoid awarding any dates right now. The dates are the 'carrot,' and the 'stick' we have is not awarding them pending people getting their collective acts together…”
After listening to industry stakeholders go back and forth for 2 3/4 hours at Wednesday's dates committee meeting, CHRB commissioners Wendy Mitchell and Damascus Castellanos both expressed concerns on Thursday how some entities didn't seem to be acting with enough urgency considering one month has passed since 1/ST Racing let it be known it would walk away from California's lone commercial Thoroughbred license in the north.
“I've been on this board four years now, and we're really at a crossroads more so than I think we've been [at] in my time here,” Mitchell said. “And I'm very concerned…. It is more urgent than it's ever been to have the industry stay in California.”
Said Castellanos: “Everybody has an idea of working together and doing what they've got to do for the industry. But nobody really came to us [Wednesday] with a plan…. So my concern is the urgency…. We can't force dates on anybody. You guys have got to come up with this…. I suggest, as an industry, get together. Figure it out.”
Eventually, Hudnut moved to defer the allocation of the SoCal race dates until the board's September meeting. But no commissioner seconded his motion, so it died.
CHRB chairman Gregory Ferraro, DVM, took a different approach. He not only made a motion that the board take up the SoCal dates issue right away, but he specified that the '24 dates for that region be “the exact replication of the dates we awarded for 2023, with the exception of the one week” during which Del Mar hosts Breeders' Cup.
Santa Anita, this year's Breeders' Cup host, currently has control of that extra autumn week. Its executives did not lodge any opposition Thursday to Del Mar being granted that week in '24.
Ferraro's motion was seconded. Before the final vote was taken, CHRB vice chair Oscar Gonzales reminded commissioners who might be cognizant of Hudnut's “carrot and stick” analogy that the board still has other resources to act as cudgels of compliance, such as the CHRB's powers to halt any licensee's ability to race at any time, or even to deny a license altogether after blocks of dates have been awarded.
“I mean, we have a lot of latitude as the board, so it's among the reasons that I intend to vote for southern California racing dates knowing that this board has been empowered [to make changes after awarding blocks of dates],” Gonzales said. “I believe we are going to be paying very, very close attention to see how things unfold here over the next few weeks and months.”
The motion to award the '24 SoCal dates then passed, with Hudnut casting the lone dissenting vote.
The exact blocks of SoCal dates were not read into the record prior to the vote. But the template they will follow lines up with year's rotation: Santa Anita from Dec. 26, 2023, to late June 2024; then Los Alamitos through early July; Del Mar through mid-September; Los Alamitos until late September; Santa Anita through late October; Del Mar through the first week of December; Los Alamitos until late December.