Overlap Between Ferndale and Golden Gate Still in Limbo

Golden Gate Fields | Shane Micheli/Vassar Photography

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A dispute that began in October over whether Ferndale (Humboldt County Fair) will once again have to run its second of two weeks of racing at the end of August against overlapping competition from the commercial licensee Golden Gate Fields (GGF) will now likely extend into March.

There are multiple reasons for the impasse. But the two main sticking points that emerged at Thursday's California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) were:

1) The two tracks, plus stakeholders from the California Authority of Racing Fairs (CARF), Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC), and California Thoroughbred Trainers (CTT), couldn't present a unified compromise to the CHRB after being given three months to figure one out.

2) The CHRB itself failed to vote in a solution one way or the other, because two commissioners were absent from the regularly scheduled monthly meeting.

The lone motion that came up for the vote–to give Ferndale the entire two weeks un-overlapped in exchange for financial considerations to GGF that would be determined later–resulted in three yes votes and two nos.

But the results of the vote didn't count because the CHRB can't pass any measure unless at least four commissioners vote on the majority side.

“It looks like the horsemen are probably going to be getting an overdue vacation if we can't fix this,” said a frustrated CHRB vice chair Oscar Gonzales in the wake of seeing the motion he proposed fail.

Because the CHRB has already canceled its February meeting (and barring the unlikely event of an “emergency” meeting being called for in this case), the earliest the vote on the overlapped or un-overlapped week of dates could come up again is at the Mar. 16 meeting.

Back in October, the CHRB had voted in a 2023 race dates calendar for NorCal that largely mirrored the framework from the 2022 schedule.

The lone exception was that the board held off on a decision on the Ferndale vs. GGF one-week overlap. The two license applicants then requested more time to reach a compromise so commissioners wouldn't have to impose one, but their negotiations ended up not being fruitful.

On the pro-Ferndale side, testimony at CHRB meetings in recent months (and again on Jan. 19) has centered around preserving small-community racing; keeping alive the tradition of the fairs; Ferndale's stated necessity that a second week of un-overlapped racing is required for any racing there to be viable; Ferndale regularly out-drawing GGF in attendance, and the purported roles Ferndale plays in growing new fans and helping lower-level horse outfits survive.

In favor of giving GGF racing during the second week of Ferndale's meet, proponents have cited GGF's allegedly greater importance as the linchpin of NorCal racing, its ability to offer grass racing, and the additional purse money that would flow into the pockets of year-round, higher-level stables.

Commissioners have also taken note of recent upheaval and legal woes involving Ferndale. Back on Nov. 15, police arrested the fair association's bookkeeper on charges of embezzlement, and the fair association's general manager and three long-time directors have also recently stepped down.

A new GM could be in place by the end of the month, Jim Morgan, the legal counsel for the Humboldt County Fair, told the CHRB on Thursday.

“We're not against Golden Gate,” Morgan told commissioners while pleading his case for no overlap and two weeks of racing. But, Morgan added, “they do run in [10] of the 12 months out of the calendar year. So one week to Golden Gate doesn't mean as much as one week to Humboldt…

“We've been perceived as a minor-league venue and there is some truth to that,” Morgan said. “But we're also a gateway venue” that draws new fans, horse owners and horses into California's overall racing ecosystem.

Larry Swartzlander, CARF's executive director, said his organization has tried to broker a deal that gives Ferndale its solo two weeks in exchange for paying purse money to GGF.

“CARF's goal, if we get the second week un-overlapped, [is] obviously we want to raise purses at Humboldt,” Swartzlander said. “We want to make racing better. And we all understand that Humboldt is never going to have the same level of racing of Golden Gate or Pleasanton…

“CARF's position was to offer [$200,000 in purses] to Golden Gate,” Swartzlander said. “Golden Gate's counter is that they would prefer to have [bet] commissions. CARF's position is if we give up commissions [the deal] wouldn't work.”

David Duggan, the general manager and vice president for GGF, told the CHRB that, “I don't see any light at the end of the tunnel for us coming to a suitable arrangement.”

When CHRB chairman Gregory Ferraro, DVM, asked what losing that one week of racing would cost GGF, Duggan replied, “Off the top of my head, mister chairman, it would certainly be north of $250,000 [in commissions].”

Bill Nader, the TOC's president and chief executive officer, said the value of GGF's turf course “shouldn't be understated” during the summer months.

“I think it's important for the viability of Golden Gate, and also for the purse structure, that we go with the overlap of the two weeks, so we support the Golden Gate Fields position,” Nader said.

“We respect Ferndale as a complementary player in the overall landscape of racing in northern California. But in the lead role, maintaining the overlap and giving Golden Gate [that week is] important for the California horse population, for the ability to be able to run on the turf, and also for people who are supporting racing as fans,” Nader said.

“A half-mile track is something that's interesting for a short period of time,” Nader continued. “But it's not the brand that we want to present for California racing, particularly at that time of year.”

Alan Balch, the CTT's executive director, said he agreed with the TOC's position, adding that “more than anywhere else in the state, [NorCal] trainers are also owners. And we look at [being able to race at GGF] as maximizing racing opportunities.”

Commissioner Wendy Mitchell framed the question in terms of serving a constituency.

“Ferndale is a remote, northern California location [in which] there's a community concerned,” Mitchell said. “This is a fair [that] we need to be supporting, because otherwise we're leaving part of our population out in the wilderness…. And I think we need to give them the dates in order for them to [help grow the overall racing product statewide].”

Chairman Ferraro offered a counterpoint.

“The thing, Wendy, is that our constituency is really the horsemen of California. And we're talking about taking hundreds of thousands of dollars out of their purse money to benefit  a local fair,” Ferraro said. “That balance has got to be there. Our primary responsibility is to ensure the health and viability of racing in California, so that would concern me.”

Mitchell respectfully voiced disagreement: “I don't think it's just the horsemen that are our constituency. I think we have multiple stakeholders and constituencies here.”

The board batted around the idea of giving the two sides more time to work out a compromise. But Morgan stated that the fair's board would prefer an answer right away.

Morgan explained that Ferndale has to bring aboard new board members, and that it would be tough to hire a competent person without being able to tell them what the budget and racing-related revenues for 2023 are going to look like. He also added that horsemen in the Pacific Northwest are now already starting to plan where they'll be racing in the summer, and delays and further uncertainty will only harm Ferndale's efforts to recruit them.

Gonzales made a motion to give the two weeks un-overlapped to Ferndale, with the understanding that Ferndale will have to “bridge the gap” financially with GGF before the March CHRB meeting.

But that motion only set off another verbal spiral over exactly what such a money compromise might be valued at. There was also talk that the current clashing offers of purse money versus bet commissions amounted to an “apples to oranges” type of comparison that benefitted nobody.

When the motion came to a vote, commissioners Gonzales, Mitchell and Brenda Washington Davis voted in favor of giving Ferndale its own two weeks without competition.

Commissioners Ferraro and Thomas Hudnut voted no.

Commissioners Dennis Alfieri and Damascus Castellanos were not present.

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