By T. D. Thornton
At one point in Wednesday's California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) teleconference meeting, as discussion of yet another agenda item spiraled wildly off-topic and devolved into argumentive cross-talk, chairman Gregory Ferraro, DVM, attempted to restore order by firmly declaring “chaos is not allowed.”
For some industry participants who vocalized frustration Apr. 22 at how CHRB meetings have become increasingly dominated by anti-racing proponents using allegedly obstructionist tactics to muddle the hours-long monthly proceedings, the chairman's assertion must have seemed like the figurative equivalent of trying to cram toothpaste back into the tube.
Yes, the CHRB did manage to take some form of action after hearing testimony on 11 agenda items before segueing into the routinely contentious “open” public commentary period, which has now been limited to two minutes per speaker (from three) and capped at 30 minutes total. Anyone who didn't get to speak was told they could submit written comments to the board instead.
But the entire tenor of Wednesday's meeting–building on over a year's worth of tension since the equine fatality crisis at Santa Anita Park, and now exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and partial racing shutdown–came across as an us-versus-them spectacle that featured Thoroughbred industry stakeholders imploring the CHRB to do more to quell off-topic protesters while the anti-racing activists expressed anger at not being allowed to have their say at an open public meeting.
Since early 2019, protesters have increased their presence and ramped up their volume at CHRB meetings. Many who self-identify as “animal rights activists” have made salient points about horse health and welfare, and some genuinely seem open to the idea of collaborating to bring about meaningful change.
But other Californians whose opinions tilt more toward ending horse racing at all costs have emerged as the more outspoken subset, rankling pro-racing supporters and even some CHRB members and staffers because of the seemingly coordinated and confrontational nature of their tactics.
Ferraro, apparently bracing for another meeting filled with caustic commentary, tried to set the tone early Wednesday by saying that he “and the rest of this board [were] appointed by the governor to reform racing, not to eliminate it. So those of you that are lobbying this board to cease racing in California are making your arguments in the wrong arena.”
Yet the very first three people queued up telephonically to offer comments specific to the third agenda item (equine medical director's report) stated opinions about the sport that strayed from that specific topic.
This prompted Greg Avioli, the president and chief executive officer of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, to use his allotted two minutes of commentary to ask the CHRB to find ways to limit the off-topic discussions that have been bogging down the commission's meetings.
“The dozen or so protesters that have disrupted the business of this industry for 13 months must be checked by the CHRB,” Avioli said. “Public comment is one of thousands of things that this board must oversee. However, since February of last year, the CHRB meetings have become untenable and unworkable because they are dominated by inane, wrong, and generally hateful comments by a small group of people.”
Although Avioli did not enumerate specific anti-racing strategies, it is not difficult to come up with a list of common tactics that have emerged again and again at CHRB meetings over the past year. These include protesters using their allotted time to read into the record long lists of the names of deceased Thoroughbreds, repeatedly calling the Breeders' Cup the “Greeders' Cup,” and asking the board to start referring to racehorses as “enslaved equines.”
At one recent CHRB meeting, one proponent of banning the whip even challenged commissioner (and retired Hall-of-Fame jockey) Alex Solis to allow her to strike him with a riding crop to see if it hurt. At another meeting, some of the same activists who only months before bemoaned the fact that California racetracks lacked sophisticated diagnostic imaging equipment abruptly switched their arguments to rail against Santa Anita's new PET scanner, claiming that racehorses who underwent scans would now be discharging contaminated urine into the ecosystem.
In fairness, the lack of decorum cuts both ways. Last May, jockey Norberto Arroyo, Jr. was censured at a CHRB meeting after he made rude and disparaging remarks about women who spoke out against the sport. And now that the CHRB has gone to telephonic meetings because of COVID-19 restrictions, it is not uncommon to hear snide laughter in the background whenever Ferraro uses the power of his chairmanship to order speakers cut off when he decides they've strayed too far off topic.
Commissioner Wendy Mitchell has emerged as an inclusive voice of reason at recent CHRB meetings, and Wednesday she emphasized that “as appointees on the horse racing board of a public entity, it is our responsibility to listen to members of the public. And while it may not seem convenient, or helpful, or whatever, everyone can have their own opinion, and this is our responsibility.”
Denise Bolbol, a frequent public commenter at CHRB meetings, said after Mitchell spoke that, “I just want to say thank you very much for saying that. And I just want to say that the chairman, the way he's conducting these meetings, cutting people off who he doesn't like, and allowing the people he likes to speak off-topic, is really, really wrong…. That's a violation of free speech in this state.”
Ironically though, Bolbol was making those comments during agenda item No. 7 that pertained specifically to the summer race meet license at Los Alamitos (which did get approved). And because her reply didn't conform to the matter at hand, Ferraro ordered Bolbol's phone line to be cut off.
When the meeting finally did go into the open public commentary period, Alan Balch, the executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, thanked the volunteer commissioners and paid CHRB staff for trying to diligently do their jobs “despite these continual provocations you have to endure.”
Balch continued, “I'm speaking as a 'concerned citizen,'” emphasizing the term that many anti-racing protestors use to describe themselves. “And I'm concerned about an exceptionally small number of extremists whose very repetitive and closed-minded diatribes [at] public meetings and to other government authorities [are] filled with exaggeration and hostility and misinformation and invective [to] continue to try to disrupt and even to destroy the livelihoods of their fellow Californians.”
But Wayne Johnson, another frequent public commenter at CHRB meetings, respectfully disagreed.
“Mr. Balch, of course, wants to marginalize us and call us radicals…without noting the fact that hundreds of thousands of people in this country are very opposed to horse racing,” Johnson said. “We're hardly on the margins.”