Politically Powerful Law Firm Hired To Issue NorCal PRA Requests

Golden Gate Fields | Vassar Photography

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At a make-or-break time for Northern California racing interests as they attempt to build a racing circuit in the void left by Golden Gate Fields's imminent closure, two key players in those efforts have been on the receiving end of public records requests from Benbrook Law Group, a law firm well-known for their involvement in high-profile political campaigns, including the failed effort to recall Governor Gavin Newsom.

Some Northern California stakeholders said they suspected political intimidation was the motive for the request when the balance of the industry's economic power in California is up for grabs, and at a time of heightened tensions between industry interests in the North and South of the state.

“This constant back and forth that's happened is really unfortunate. It's not sustainable,” said owner-breeder Justin Oldfield, who chairs a working group to help facilitate ongoing racing in the North. “Racing in California is in jeopardy here. We need the North. We need the South. We need to figure out a way to make this all work.”

It's currently unclear who or what entity hired Benbrook Law group to file the 10-page Public Record Act (PRA) requests sent to the California Authority of Racing Fairs (CARF) and the Alameda County Fair.

Broadly speaking, the PRA requests ask for records and communications related to the closure of Golden Gate Fields, and to the continuation of Thoroughbred racing after the closure of Golden Gate Fields. This includes any records related to the creation of a new entity, “whether public or private,” that would “participate in hosting or conducting Thoroughbred racing,” and the allocation of wagering proceeds once Golden Gate closes.

Aside from its role in the campaign to recall Gov. Newsom, Benbrook Law Group has been involved in several high-profile politically-driven legal campaigns with a right-wing bent, including in recent years challenges to affirmative action programs, and a lawsuit against the state by the Firearms Policy Coalition challenging gun and ammunition disclosure laws.

After a Sacramento County Superior Court judge ruled to give supporters of the effort to recall Gov. Newsom more time to collect the necessary signatures for a special election, it transpired that the judge and Bradley Benbrook–who founded Benbrook Law Group–were once attorneys at the same Sacramento law firm, and had served as co-counsel on at least two cases.

Before last month's California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) meeting, the Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC), The Stronach Group (TSG) Los Alamitos and Del Mar Thoroughbred Club (DMTC) issued a joint submission to the CHRB, asking the regulator to allocate race dates for the last 14 weeks of 2024 and for 2025–beyond the Northern fair meet dates–with operations concentrated in the South.

Citing the tough economics of maintaining parallel North-South racing circuits, the letter also outlined a broader set of proposals, including a possible legislative change to permit Los Alamitos to card night Thoroughbred races beyond 4 1/2 furlongs for $5,000 claimers and below, and $8,000 maiden claimers.

Against a backdrop of strong vocal support from NorCal stakeholders, representatives from CARF unveiled during the CHRB January meeting possible plans for a racing circuit in the North to be based at Cal Expo in Sacramento or at Pleasanton, which hosts the Alameda County Fair.

Stakeholders in the North appear to have until the March 21 CHRB meeting to assemble a concrete proposal for extended racing operations beyond the summer fairs.

According to Jerome Hoban, CEO of the Alameda County Fair and CARF board chair, Pleasanton has become the primary focus for a racing HQ in the North.

“CARF Board voted last week to support Pleasanton as being a potential hub for Northern Racing,” wrote Hoban, in an email on Feb. 11. He added that “many details need to be worked out to make this a reality,” including contract negotiations related to the property and on financing.

One such negotiation would appear to concern Pleasanton Golf Center Driving Range, which currently operates within the fairgrounds.

“The Alameda County Fair Board will need to approve the plan and ultimately, the CHRB would need to allocate the dates and license the meeting,” wrote Hoban. “We know that Northern California racing is vital to the entire industry as well as the Fairs. The economic impact of Northern racing is staggering and has a broad reach across several states.”

Prior to the January CHRB meeting, three TOC board members resigned from the organization in protest at the joint submission to the state regulator.

“It is clear to us that the current leadership is not being transparent and not working to represent the entire state of California,” wrote Lindsay LaRoche, Johnny Taboada and Ed Moger, in their resignation letter.

TOC leadership subsequently pushed back against several claims made in the letter.

Another point of leverage in the ongoing negotiations concerns legislation passed last September that means if Golden Gate Fields is not licensed to operate beyond July 1, proceeds from simulcast wagering in the north are funnelled south when there is no live racing in the northern half of the state after that date.

It is currently unclear who or what entities have hired the Benbrook Law Group to issue the PRAs. The TOC, TSG, DMTC, Los Alamitos and PETA have all denied hiring the firm. Benbrook declined to answer the same question.

In response to claims that the company had been hired to intimidate Northern racing interests at such a sensitive stage of negotiations, Benbrook wrote that it is “hardly political bullying or intimidation” to ask a public entity to comply with its public record disclosure obligations.

“All the more so considering that these public entities appear to be using public resources to figure out how to make money from gambling proceeds,” Benbrook wrote. “Your questions suggest that some parties think all of this should be happening outside the public's view; we respectfully disagree with that.”

Long-time Northern California owner-breeder Tom Bachman said that “there's a lot of skulduggery going on” as the fight over the future of horse racing in California plays out.

“I think they're going to make whatever push they can to collapse the North,” Bachman added. “If they threaten Pleasanton, that's the heart of being able to keep the North up and going.”

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