By Daniel Ross
California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) vice chair Madeline Auerbach’s exit from the board marks the latest in a recent exodus-stream from the CHRB. Former chairman Chuck Winner left his seat this summer, when his term ended. Earlier this week, CHRB executive director Rick Baedeker confirmed that he’s leaving his position before next spring, while the San Diego Tribune reported that commissioner Fred Maas will leave the board on Jan. 1, when his term expires.
A CHRB commissioner since early 2014, Auerbach is a long-time owner-breeder in the state, perhaps best known for the part she played as co-owner of multiple California leading sire, Unusual Heat, who died in 2017. Auerbach credits the horse’s accomplishments as spearheading the work she has done for racehorse aftercare. Most notably, Auerbach founded and is the former chairperson of CARMA, a pioneering non-profit racehorse retirement program in California. Other hats include membership in The Jockey Club, a former seat on the Thoroughbred Owners of California Board of Directors, and as a founding director of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance.
Auerbach has recently been under fire over “conflicts of interest” accusations stemming from her current racing interests and her regulatory position. In August, a spotlight was shone on Fravel, a horse she owned in partnership with Tim Ritvo, The Stronach Group (TSG) COO. Ritvo subsequently relinquished his interest in the horse.
In the following Q&A, Auerbach explains her decision to leave the CHRB, the welfare crisis that has engulfed the industry this year, and the road ahead for the sport.
DR: Your tenure isn’t up until 2022. Why leave now?
MA: Because the powers-that-be in Sacramento have decided by their actions that they want to take over the board, and I believe they’re in the process of doing that. I don’t fit into their paradigm. I’m also tired of being answerable to the animal [rights] advocates. It seems that there’s nobody in this fight who takes the horses’ care seriously. The animal activists don’t because they just want to shut racing down. They don’t care about anything else. And look, you have a governor who would rather speak to New York Times reporters than actually speak with any of us on the board. I’ve been doing this for 15 years in one form or another. I’m worn out.
DR: Speaking of the NY Times, Governor Newsom told them that “he’s pulling away from those with direct conflicts and pulling out a more objective oversight capacity.” With that in mind, have you felt direct political pressure to leave your position?
MA: Well yes, because I was in line to be chair. I was the next logical person. I’ve been vice chair for three years and there were a lot of calls made that weren’t made to me, that were made to commissioner Maas. And he was told–I can’t tell you who told him, whether somebody in the governor’s office directly or whether it was somebody in the agency–but he was told that the governor wanted him to be chair. So, right away that would marginalize me.
DR: Couldn’t you have stayed on as vice chair?
MA: No, I wasn’t going to be vice chair anymore. According to them, that’s not what they wanted. They told Fred they wanted him to be chair and they wanted [commissioner Oscar] Gonzalez as vice chair. And Fred said, ‘absolutely not.’ This is what Fred told me.
There’s never been this kind of interference to my knowledge on the board and what the board does. [Sacramento] wants to control it–pretty obvious. So, they were looking for the next candidate and it went down to [commissioner] Greg [Ferraro], who is going to be chair now. Don’t misunderstand me, I think Dr. Ferraro is a very, very intelligent man and I think he will do a great job and I am grateful that he agreed to try. But they’re getting what they want. They’ve gotten me to leave. They’ve gotten Fred to throw up his hands and leave. They treated Chuck Winner so poorly.
DR: In what way?
MA: Okay, it was going to be his last meeting. The way the rules are written, you have 60 days after your retirement date is up. Chuck had a lot of things lined up for that September meeting. He wanted to say goodbye. He wanted to thank people after serving all these years, to express his gratitude to people and how much he enjoyed working with them and how much it meant to him. A week or 10 days before the meeting, they told him ‘no.’
DR: You’ve been under fire over “conflicts of interest” accusations. What’s your response?
MA: I always say to those criticisms, look at my record, see what I did and see if you can ever find a place where I let a conflict of interest become my driving force. I’ve only had one protocol since doing this, and my main conflict of interest is in my bond with the horse. My main interest is taking care of the horses and you can go back and look at my voting record, or anything I’ve done, and see if I ever voted in any way that can be skewed as anything other than being worried about the horses.
Santa Anita, Del Mar, they all had beefs with me from time to time, which means that I was doing the right thing because everyone was a little unhappy. I think my record speaks for itself in my view.
DR: Do you think a happy medium could be reached, whereby the board is comprised of members with experience of the sport, but no concurrent economic ties to the game?
MA: I don’t know. I hesitate to say anything about the board because I don’t know what they’re going to do. I think bringing back Greg Ferraro out of retirement–I think that was a brilliant move by the governor’s office. If you can find people who have knowledge, who have experience, who understand the game–if you can find those people and they’re willing to do it, they would be ideal in my view. But the problem with the board is that it’s a tremendous amount of work and the only thing you get from it is grief.
DR: Are you saying you’re concerned about the direction the governor is taking the board?
MA: I don’t know whether it’s the right direction for the board or not. I don’t think it’s the right direction for racing. How can you have people voting on issues when they really don’t have any historical knowledge or current knowledge about it? I was shocked at our first board meeting when Oscar and [commissioner] Wendy [Mitchell] voted on issues I believe they had no direct knowledge of, but they obviously knew how they were supposed to vote because they voted in tandem. For the first couple of meetings, you sit, you don’t really say anything. Listen, learn. And in horse racing it’s really important because our rules and our laws are so convoluted.
DR: You’ve mentioned before that you’ve been unhappy with the lack of political support for the industry during the worst of the crisis. What do you mean by that exactly?
MA: In the industry, we were at war with forces that didn’t want to keep it going. And I think the state was watching a tennis match, trying to weigh in on the correct side. I believe at that point, whoever makes whatever decisions in the state government decided this industry doesn’t know what the heck it’s doing–‘we need to take control.’ I happened to agree with them at that particular point in time. I think somebody probably needed to step in because I know we wanted to shut it down and we couldn’t get it done. Then it got out of control where nobody knew what anybody was doing and it was very chaotic. And you saw the results.
DR: You were in active discussions with Stronach group management to shut it down?
MA: Yes, absolutely. I think we spoke to Ritvo–we couldn’t get them to do it. They would announce they would do it and then they’d get pressure from the horsemen who said, ‘Oh, you can’t shut it down.’ Look, everybody behaved in what they thought were their own best interests. That was a time when the board should have been able to step in and say, ‘shut it down until you know what the hell you’re doing.’
DR: When did you try to step in?
I don’t remember the date, but it was at least two to three weeks before Battle of Midway [was catastrophically injured on Feb. 23].
DR: How do you think the board handled the crisis?
MA: The board is like a toothless tiger. All the medication reforms that we now have, which are fabulous, do you know how many years I’ve been trying to get them passed–every fricking single one of them? We couldn’t get it done. I held meeting after meeting and got nothing but push-back. We were powerless because we couldn’t get the community to buy in. It took all of those unfortunate catastrophes for everybody to forget their nonsense and all of their little game playing and say, ‘Oh my God, yeah, we need to do this.’
DR: The state bill recently passed giving the board the authority to suspend racing, do you think that’s a plus?
MA: I don’t think so, and I’ll tell you why: Because even when it was written, and these were my words to Chuck [Winner] exactly. I said, ‘you know, the quid pro quo on this is that this could be very dangerous because you don’t know in the future who’s going to be on the board.’ I wanted the board to have the power, but I was concerned about who the board members would be in the future, that the power might not be used appropriately. So, we’ll see what happens.
DR: So, what happens now? What’s the way forward for the industry here?
MA: We’ve lost the battle for the hearts and the minds of the people who watch the game. We’re not united locally. We were not united nationally. I know that there are crisis management teams in place in various places trying to get ahead of the curve, but we’ve lost that battle. The only thing, and this is my personal opinion, the only thing I think we can do right now is to take the spotlight off the daily [fatality] count that goes on here. I think you have to absolutely stop racing here right now, rip out the track, put in a synthetic track, and figure out a way to utilize this timeframe that we are actually in right now.
In my view, the day after Breeders’ Cup, I think they should’ve shut it down, announced that they were going to put in a synthetic [track], do whatever they needed to do to make that happen. I know there’s problems with getting material and everything. All of that aside, at some point somebody has to do something bold and brave, get us off the front page–not keep doing business as usual.
They could partner with Del Mar, let the horses stay there [during construction]. Come up with a program at Golden Gate where you can write races that will work for these horses. Pay the horseman’s transport back and forth to run the races at Golden Gate so we can get through this time in one piece. To me, that’s the only thing that I could think of that would help.
DR: Do you think synthetic surfaces should be a statewide thing or just here at Santa Anita and Golden Gate?
MA: I would think that Del Mar would do it if Santa Anita did. I don’t know about Los Al[amitos]–it would be foolhardy I think for them to do it because I don’t know how long they’re going to be in business. The other thing is, if everybody is paying attention, I think that a good portion of this country probably needs to go back to synthetic, done properly, not like last time. We have a lot more information now and we should be able to do it better.
DR: You mentioned earlier that you’re tired of being answerable to the animal rights group. Do you mean to say the industry is wrong to keep a dialogue open?
MA: I don’t know now. I do know that they have a tremendous amount of influence. I have met Kathy [Guillermo], but not to have any substantive discussions with her. I think she happens to be a very reasonable person. I do. But she has people to answer and she has an agenda that she has to follow and I understand that. But there are a lot of people in the animal rights movement who in my opinion are not rational.
DR: What’s the future for you?
Well, what’s next for me is I get to actually get to be a working partner in my business again, which I think my son [Harris] will appreciate. I get to step back from [the board], but still be very, very active with trying to make sure that the [racehorse] aftercare world is strong and vibrant. That’s been a mighty struggle.