Week In Review: Northern California Racing Begins Its Uphill Battle For Survival

Tom's Secret wins at the Alameda County Fair on Saturday | William G. Vassar/Vassar Photography


You have to root for the people who strive so hard to make a go of racing in Northern California after Golden Gate Fields shut its doors for good June 9. Racing has a rich history in Northern California and there are hundreds of people, from hotwalkers to grooms to trainers to breeders, and everybody in between, who depend on the sport to put food on the table. They deserve better than the uncertainty that has left most everyone worrying about their futures after The Stronach Group announced it was closing Golden Gate Fields, which had been operating since 1941.

But if the first weekend of the post-Golden Gate Fields era is any indication, this is going to be a tough battle to win.

The first of the five fair tracks that make up the California Authority of Racing Fairs (CARF) circuit, opened Friday and the numbers were not good. Pleasanton ran six races on Friday, opening day, and attracted only 33 runners. On Saturday, they ran seven races and there were just 38 starters. That works out to an average of 5.46 starters per race. They fared a little bit better on Sunday, when they were able to cobble together an eight-race card with 51 horses entered.

That makes for a bad betting product, but the handle numbers were actually up from last year. The total handle over the first two days was $1,840,674. Last year, the combined handle on the first two days at Pleasanton was $1,501,424. The gain was 22.5 percent.

But that was hardly a cause for celebration. The betting public sent a message loud and clear, that wagering on small fields at racetracks people aren't that familiar with is a very tough sell. Averaging $920,337 a day might work for a short fair meet, but the goal in Northern California is to turn Pleasanton into the hub for a circuit that runs for at least six months.

The biggest problems the CARF tracks face are horse population and field size. Golden Gate had to cancel racing five times over the last two months because it didn't have enough horses to fill cards. The only way to get bigger fields is to increase purses, but it doesn't look like the public is going to bet enough on these tracks to make it happen.

It only figures to get worse since California breeders are likely to cut back with so much uncertainty facing racing not just in the North but in the South as well. California-breds are vital to filling cards in Northern California and their numbers continue to decline. As recently as 2015, 1,855 horses were foaled in the state. In 2022, the number was 1,310. And that's likely to drop even further.

A turf course would help. But Pleasanton doesn't have one. The only CARF track that does is Santa Rosa, but its entire 2024 racing season comes down to just nine days.

Golden Gate Fields | Shane Micheli/Vassar Photography

In past years, the fairs would host racing from mid-June to late October and then Golden Gate would re-open and begin its long meet, which stretched out over nearly nine months. This year racing will return to Pleasanton on Oct. 19 and the meet will be run by a group calling itself Golden State Racing. That meet will run through late December.

Then what? Who will hold racing in Northern California during the first five months of 2025?

That doesn't mean that someone won't try. Racing officials in the northern portion of the state seem determined to formulate a plan that will save racing in the region.

When the California Horse Racing Board met in March and approved the Golden State Racing meet at Pleasanton, CARF CEO Larry Swartzlander issued a statement that was brimming with optimism.

“We brought together the best and the brightest of our sport,” Swartzlander said. “Our commitment was to develop a horse racing plan that is modern, enhances the economic and social health of the community, is safe for the horses and jockeys, fun for our fans and generates excitement in Northern California. “[Pleasanton] provides a financially sound location. We anticipate more dynamic racing fields, higher purses, and betting opportunities that enhance the fun. At the same time, we have adhered closely to ideas offered by experts as we continue focusing on the health of our horses and jockeys.”

That's all well and good and Swartzlander and his team deserve the chance of what amounts to pulling a rabbit out of their hat. But the bottom line is sobering: not enough horses, only limited opportunities on the grass, handles too small to generate even medium-sized purses, no plans in place yet for next year, plus no chance of receiving money from casinos or slot machines. Northern California racing was having a tough enough time as it was when Golden Gate was still around. With what is left over, how can racing in that part of the state survive? One can only hope.


Fierceness's Little Brother Wins

The news on last year's 2-year-old champion Fierceness (City of Light) has not been good of late. After a poor showing in the GI Kentucky Derby he was supposed to reappear in the GI Belmont S. but did not run because trainer Todd Pletcher felt he needed more time and is now pointing the colt to the GI Haskell S.

In the meantime, Pletcher could have a new star on his hands and it's Fierceness's full-brother, Mentee (City of Light). He turned his debut Saturday at Aqueduct into a winning one when beating six others in a maiden special weight race. He won by only a nose, but it looked like rider John Velazquez was overconfident in the stretch and wasn't aware that Colloquial (Vekoma) was making a strong late run down the middle of the track. Over time it will be interesting to compare Fierceness and Mentee to see if Mentee has any of the same quirks that have hurt Fierceness and turned him into the sport's most erratic horse.


More Good News on Break Down Rates

According to a metrics report, HISA announced last week that over the first quarter of 2024 there was a 38 percent decrease in racing-related fatalities year-over-year. The numbers were derived only from tracks that HISA has control over.

But if the data holds up throughout the year, the number of racing-related fatalities per one thousand starts will have dipped all the way to 0.89. In 2009, the first year that the Jockey Club started recording fatalities, the number was 2.0 per 1,000 starters. Fifteen years later, the number has never dipped below 1.0.

The sport has come together and done an excellent job when it comes to addressing breakdowns. But the goal must remain to reduce the overall number to as few as possible.

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