By T. D. Thornton
The California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) voted 4-3 Jan. 21 to grant Los Alamitos Race Course a full-year Quarter Horse racing license for 2021, superseding a 5-1 vote from last month that awarded only a six-month license out of concerns that management wasn't doing enough to mitigate the 29 equine deaths that occurred at the track in 2020.
In the immediate aftermath of that controversial interim licensure in December, Los Al owner Ed Allred had threatened to close his track and develop the property for a purpose other than racing, which would also affect the afternoon Thoroughbred meets that Los Al hosts in June/July, September and December. Allred had cited concerns that Los Al could not compete with other national Quarter Horse venues under only a six-month license, because owners, trainers and the track's racing office all need to make plans for an entire year of racing.
Striking a much more conciliatory and cooperative tone than at the last meeting, Allred and other Los Al executives, in asking for a reconsideration, testified on Thursday that they now have a more comprehensive equine safety plan in place, including the recent hiring of three retired CHRB investigators to oversee improvements related to horse health.
Yet even as Los Al officials spoke of those beefed-up efforts to improve equine safety, the CHRB pressed track officials about two Thoroughbred training-related deaths that occurred at Los Al Jan. 17. One horse suffered a catastrophic leg fracture during a workout, and a filly that had just completed a workout and was about to be endoscoped in her stall by a veterinarian died suddenly. Both incidents are under CHRB investigation.
It's worth noting that back at the December meeting, an initial motion to grant a standard one-year license to Los Al failed after the board–which was short by one member because commissioner Alex Solis was not in attendance–deadlocked 3-3. A second motion to grant the one-year license conditional upon a mid-year safety review also came up tied 3-3. Faced with not granting any form of licensure to Los Al, the CHRB eventually settled 5-1 on the half-year license, with chairman Gregory Ferraro, DVM, the lone dissenter.
On Thursday, the CHRB took nearly three hours of testimony and public commentary on reconsidering the one-year license for Los Al. Prior to the vote, Ferraro reiterated his point from last month that granting only a half-year license made no sense considering the CHRB has the power to halt any California track's racing at any time over safety issues.
“What does a six-month license achieve, except animosity within the industry?” Ferraro asked rhetorically. “I don't see the need to limit the length of the license. Given the economic hardships resulting from the pandemic, why should the CHRB put at risk the financial viability of Los Alamitos and the Quarter Horse racing industry?”
Vice chair Oscar Gonzales, who had pushed hard for the six-month license last month, lauded Los Al Thursday for its renewed commitments to horse safety. But he said he still wasn't going to change his mind about wanting the track to be more closely watched because of its high number of equine fatalities.
“When I see an industry or a racetrack react in the way [Los Al] did by [giving] pushback on a one-year versus a six-month license, it makes me wonder what happens when the newly established federal regulatory powers take full effect,” Gonzalez said, alluding to the recently enacted Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act.
Gonzalez then told his fellow commissioners who support granting a one-year license that they should be aware that “this phase of engaging with Los Alamitos is a new one. And I don't want anyone to think for a minute that the powers that have been vested by the state of California in the CHRB, that [those standards] are going to be compromised in any way. In fact, [closer scrutiny] is just a start if we don't see immediate and quick improvements when it comes to horse safety and the welfare of workers at Los Alamitos.”
Commissioner Wendy Mitchell said she sided with Gonzalez in this sense.
“There are some serious credibility issues, from my perspective, with the [Los Al closure] threats that were made at the last meeting,” Mitchell said. “This is our job and our responsibility…. If we do something you don't like and then you threaten to shut down, that's not the way to work with a regulatory body. And that's not an appropriate response.”
With the full seven-member board voting on Thursday, there was no chance for another round of deadlocks.
Voting in favor of granting a full-year 2021 license to Los Al were commissioners Ferraro, Solis, Dennis Alfieri and commissioner Damascus Castellanos.
Voting against were commissioners Gonzalez, Mitchell, and Brenda Washington Davis.
In other CHRB business, the agenda for Thursday's meeting included an option for the board to convene a closed session to hear two separate requests to overturn and appeal a Dec. 9 stewards decision not to disqualify Justify and Hoppertunity based on their 2018 scopolamine positives. With the open portion of Thursday's CHRB meeting extending to nearly five hours, it was not immediately clear before deadline for this story if those matters were taken up in the executive session or what action might have resulted.