State panel could decide fate of Sonoma County horse racing

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The California Horse Racing Board will meet next Oct. 24 at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia.

A proposed schedule change for the Sonoma County Fair that could accelerate the long decline and potential demise of local horse racing is at the center of a tense fight, as officials say any switch that pushes races further into August and pits the fair against school schedules is untenable.

The dispute comes more than two years after the Sonoma County Fair endured a major schedule change – going to 11 days from 15 and moving to the first two weeks of August. That move, like the one on the table now, was tied to racing schedules set by the California Horse Racing Board, which regulates horse racing and betting in the state.

The current dispute could pit two longtime fair traditions, horse racing and youth livestock programs, against each other to dictate the fair’s future schedule.

The California Authority of Racing Fairs, an organization comprised of county fairs that host racing, has proposed a shift that would benefit two larger fairs — Alameda’s and the state fair in Sacramento — and move the Sonoma County Fair to Aug. 6-16 in 2020, cutting into the start of school and creating conflict for kids who work all year to be able to show their animals.

“You can’t have kids skipping school to show an animal here,” said Becky Bartling, Sonoma County Fair CEO. “It just doesn’t work.”

Decoupling the racing schedule from the fair isn’t a practical solution, officials said, because the horse track sees far fewer spectators and less revenue on days when the fair isn’t open. The drop in earnings has been as large as 50% in those periods. A future schedule with less overlap between the fair and racing would likely be the death knell for Sonoma County’s track, officials said.

The California Authority of Racing Fairs “has boxed us into a corner,” said Sonoma County Fair Board President Max Mickelsen. “I think my board would say the kids in the community come first ... There’s no way in the world I can see us wanting to jeopardize all of our youth activities by overlapping with school.”

Officials learned of the proposal in September and have been working behind the scenes to craft a response. Heather Borck, exhibits coordinator for the Sonoma County Fair, sent an email to fair stakeholders asking for help in the fight. Borck asked recipients to write letters to the California Horse Racing Board, and provided a list of five talking points, including the negative impact the shift would have on schools or youth and the importance of racing to the fair.

Officials will forward those letters to the California Horse Racing Board ahead of its Oct. 24 meeting at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia.

Bartling couldn’t predict the outcome if Sonoma County doesn’t get its way, including whether horse racing would need to be eliminated.

“We have to look at all of the financials associated with it,” Bartling said. “We’re hoping that doesn’t happen. We’re hoping to negotiate with the California Authority of Racing Fairs to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

The authority — Sonoma County ceased being a member about a decade ago — has so far refused to budge from its proposal. It stems from the group’s desire to shift the Alameda County Fair forward in July.

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The California Horse Racing Board will meet next Oct. 24 at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia.

That move would push the state fair into August and conflict with the current dates of the Sonoma County Fair. Larry Swartzlander, executive director of the racing authority, did not return a phone message seeking comment.

While the move has been pitched as good for the Alameda County Fair, Bartling said it would damage the Sonoma County Fair.

The fight again puts the California Horse Racing Board in the position of picking winners, a role Chairwoman Madeline Auerbach acknowledged during the board’s September meeting, when the switch first came up publicly.

“On behalf of my fellow board members, we would really appreciate if all of you would get it done and not put us in the position we’ve just been put in,” Auerbach said before tabling the scheduling decision to the Oct. 24 meeting date.

The decision could force a stark choice in Sonoma County, which has for more than a decade grappled with declining interest and fan spending at the horse track. Horse racing earnings for the fair have plummeted from $1.33 million in 2007 to less than $100,000 this year.

“Historically, it’s been a big part of the Sonoma County Fair,” Bartling said. “But ultimately, we need to look into the future and look at the opportunities to do things that don’t include horse racing.”

Officials have been plotting a future without horse racing behind closed doors. On Tuesday, Sonoma County Fair officials will meet again in a closed session to discuss real estate transactions related to the fairgrounds. Officials are mum on whether those negotiations specifically involve horse racing facilities.

Bartling won’t discuss the negotiations except to say they discussions “unequivocally” don’t involve selling the track acreage.

But officials are looking at a different options for the horse racing venue, which includes the grandstands, main dirt track, interior grass track and stables.

“That’s a discussion we’re looking at,” Bartling said. “Other than that, I can’t speak to anything.”

When asked if fair officials were considering a lease, Bartling said via text message she couldn’t offer additional comment.

Mickelsen acknowledged the numbers for the track, race field size, attendance and earnings, are lower than ever, but he still said he had no desire to cut the sport from the fair.

“Horse racing has been a longtime tradition of the fair,” he said. “We would like to do everything we can to keep it.”

The revenue slide for tracks statewide has been accompanied by a sharp drop in both the number of races and number of available race horses, exacerbating competition among California’s dwindling number of venues.

At September’s California Horse Racing Board meeting, California Thoroughbred Trainers Executive Director Alan Balch said his group has had questions and qualms about the fairs in Northern California. He drew applause after illustrating the crux of the problem: The current number of races spread the field of thoroughbreds too thin, and it’s hurting the sport.

“It comes down to there’s just too damn many five-, six-, seven-horse races,” Balch said. “And you don’t get good betting with those fields. You need large fields to get the big-money betters. And if we don’t fill those races, then this whole industry is going to drop dead.”

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