Sonoma County Fair horse racing challenged by declining interest, deaths of animals

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Richard Lewis was explaining safety protocols at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds racetrack Thursday, but he kept getting interrupted.

Lewis strode through the walking ring and continued to a spot at the beginning of the homestretch when someone reported a malfunctioning gate in the side railing. He got a call on his radio about a jackrabbit at the ⅜-mile turn on the turf track. He held up a hand to pause the conversation and craned his neck toward the main video screen after the finish of a race when he heard that someone had called for an inquiry, claiming his horse had been blocked by another.

Lewis stamped out those small fires in quick succession. The gate abutting the dirt track was fine; it was another gate, one behind the barns, that had a bad hinge. The jackrabbit, he said, would flee before the horses reached him. And the protest?

“This isn’t gonna go anywhere,” Lewis said. “As soon as you look at the characters involved.”

As the safety steward for the eight days of horse racing in Santa Rosa, Lewis, who has a shaved head and a compact intensity, seems perfectly suited to deal with any issue that might affect the horses, jockeys or stable workers here. But there are challenges that far exceed his control.

Horse racing nationwide is moving with a limp. Tracks are shutting down — Suffolk Downs in Boston being the most recent example. Breeders and trainers are leaving the business. Racing days, starts — the number of individual horses leaving the gate — and betting handles all are on the decline. And dark clouds have formed around the sport since a spate of horse fatalities at Santa Anita Park, a landmark California track, at the beginning of the year.

These issues not only are represented at the Sonoma County Fair. They are magnified here, especially the question of horse safety.

The Jockey Club, which has advocated for the thoroughbred industry for 125 years, publishes an annual Equine Injury Database that aggregates records of horse deaths at 113 U.S. racetracks. Twenty-five of those tracks release their mortality numbers to the public. In March, the Louisville Courier Journal (the hometown newspaper of the Kentucky Derby) compared rates from those 25 participating tracks over the three most recent years of data. And the highest in the country belonged to Santa Rosa, at an average of 2.62 deaths per 1,000 individual starts.

The Santa Rosa track, a source of family fun for generations, was presented as the most deadly horse racing oval in America from 2016 through 2018.

And the fair received more bad news Thursday afternoon, after jockey Heriberto Figueroa sensed something was wrong with his horse, Black Site, before hitting the half-mile mark in the sixth race. According to Lewis, veterinarians determined the animal, which did not fall and was taken from the track in an ambulance, had broken a shoulder bone. They decided it was best to euthanize the gelding.

Sonoma County Fair Board president Rob Muelrath said further investigation is underway, adding that an initial inquiry eliminated the track surface as a cause of the breakdown.

People associated with the track, and with horse racing in general, offer an explanation of the fair’s high mortality rate, pointing to sample size.

Santa Anita, as one example, had a fatality rate of 2.41 over that same period. The number was derived from 63 horse deaths in 26,122 starts over the three-year period. Santa Rosa, in contrast, suffered four horse deaths in 1,524 starts before this year. One additional fatality would have sent the rate skyrocketing. One fewer would have preserved the track’s anonymity.

“The loss of even one horse is not acceptable,” Mike Marten, a spokesman for the California Horse Racing Board, said in a text. “As far as comparing Santa Rosa with other tracks, Santa Rosa has such a short meet with relatively small number of starts, one fatality makes a big difference. … One horse over three years is the difference between 2.62 and their 10-year average of 1.92. Hopefully, we will see a regression towards the mean in 2019.”

Since 2014, the track has had at least one horse death each year, with the exception of 2016, when it had two.

“It was a freak deal,” Lewis said, speaking of last year’s fatality. “The horse that broke down was in a high-end race — it was a stakes race — and the horse was going down the backside and took a misstep. You may go another six days and not have one. But just because it’s that one — anyone can make the numbers read whatever they want, to their benefit. And yes, we had one. And yes, I was sick about it.”

John Tipton, who owns or co-owns 21 thoroughbreds and hoped to have some running at the fair this weekend, hadn’t been aware of the numbers from the Jockey Club’s database. They did not change how he feels about racing in Santa Rosa.

“If I didn’t think it was safe, my horses wouldn’t be out here,” Tipton said.

Concerns on animal safety

Samantha Eachus also hadn’t known about the death rate at the Sonoma County Fair. It didn’t sway her, either. She would have been opposed to continued racing in any case.

As workers groomed the dirt track in preparation for Thursday’s opening slate, Eachus, 26, stood on the sidewalk outside the fairgrounds, along Bennett Valley Road, quietly engaging passersby while holding a handmade sign that read “YOU BET THEY DIE” on one side and “CRUELTY ENDS WITH YOU” on the other.

Eachus practically grew up on a horse. She trained from the age of 5 and wound up riding in the sport known as three-day eventing. She quit, she said, when a horse died at one of her competitions. Since then, she has dedicated much of her time to horse rehabilitation, on her own and through the Sonoma County chapter of the Berkeley-based animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere.

Eachus said that thoroughbreds can be raced as young as 18 months. The standard bar is 2 years, but presumably a horse would train for months before entering the starting gate. She insisted that is too young, that the animals’ bones have yet to fully develop at that age. She said that many of the former racehorses she works with “have a lot of confusion” when you ask them to do something different, and are extremely head-shy. That is, they spook if you try to touch their ears or halter them. And there’s a worse scenario.

“Lots of trainers and owners — they can be like companies — won’t keep their slow horses long enough to see them be trained for another discipline,” Eachus said. “They sell them on to stockyards, and they’re commonly bought by kill buyers who will send them either to Mexico or to Canada to be slaughtered for dog food. That’s honestly the majority of racehorses in the United States. We can’t all pretend that every single horse is Seabiscuit and they’re gonna have a nice retirement.”

Apprised of Eachus’ concerns, Tipton seemed genuinely taken aback.

“I think this lady is not aware,” he said. “If she came back to the barn with me, I think it would change her mind.”

Tipton’s relationship to horse racing began 42 years ago, when he was 13 and his parents took him to the Sonoma County Fair. He arrived with maybe $12 in his pocket. By the time he’d hit five or six exactas — nailing the top two finishers, in correct order — spectators seated two boxes behind him were asking the boy for tips. Tipton walked away with almost $1,100.

“I couldn’t lose,” he said Thursday, sitting in a box in the grandstands and fully looking the part of the thoroughbred owner in a checked shirt, jeans, cowboy hat and wraparound sunglasses. “From that point on, I knew what one of my main hobbies was gonna be.”

Tipton has been running horses at the Sonoma County Fair since 1985. He acknowledged a small degree of risk to the animals. But he said none of his horses has ever suffered a racing injury, over more than 500 starts all over the country. And he disagreed with Eachus’ assessment of the everyday life of a thoroughbred.

“When I die and come back, I want to come back as one of my horses,” Tipton said. “They get brushed and groomed twice a day. They get vitamins, they get wormed …”

“Dental care. Chiropractor,” added his friend and fellow horse owner, Grahme Chung, who was visiting from New York.

“Right,” Tipton continued. “They get better medical care than humans do. Than we do.”

Medication use scrutinized

Much of the outrage directed at horse racing this year has focused on the use, and perhaps abuse, of medications in the barn. Compared to other countries, the United States allows administration of many pharmaceuticals much closer to the starting time. For example, international racing rules prohibit phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory, less than six days before a race; in the United States, horses can receive it the day before a start. Naproxen, used to suppress pain and inflammation, must be discontinued 15 days before an international race; in the U.S., it’s two days.

Most controversial of all is Lasix, long given to horses to reduce the risk of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage, a condition that can result in small capillaries in the airways leaking blood during high-intensity workouts. Lasix also is a diuretic. It causes horses to urinate, which makes them lighter, which makes them faster. In a white paper released in March, the Jockey Club called Lasix “a performance-enhancing drug cloaked as a therapeutic medication.”

Santa Anita banned Lasix as a race-day medication in March. A month later, a coalition of tracks, including all three Triple Crown venues, agreed to phase out race-day Lasix for all stakes races by 2021.

Some wonder if it’s a token gesture.

“Lasix has never broke a horse down,” Lewis said.

As the he explained, two veterinarians share responsibilities at any race sanctioned by the California Horse Racing Board. One, the state veterinarian, works directly for the CHRB. The other, the association vet, works for the local venue, in this case the Sonoma County Fair.

Once the stewards get the list of entries 72 hours before a race, the veterinarians look for warning signs: Has a horse been off for an extended period of time, or taken a drop in class, or changed trainers since its previous race, or been worked out under an unusual schedule? The vets look at each horse two, three, four times on race day, and pay extra attention to red-flagged animals.

The association veterinarian in Santa Rosa is Sara Sporer, who could see Golden Gate Fields from the window of her childhood home in Albany.

“I would walk over and watch,” Sporer said. “I was just intrigued by their size and kindness. I definitely wanted them central to my life.”

She graduated from veterinary school in 2007 and has worked at racetracks ever since.

Under steward’s watchful eye

Sporer’s race day begins between 6 and 7 a.m. She visits every horse on the card that day, checking for signs of lameness or pain or even strange behavior. Because the same thoroughbreds tend to travel around the Northern California racing circuit, she is highly familiar with most of them. She knows when they’re acting out of character.

“(A horse) should be happy,” she said. “Watching him jog, if he has a head bob, he’s gonna come out.”

Working through the race steward, the veterinarians have the power to scratch a horse, meaning they don’t run. That happened twice Thursday. Candy Crew, penciled into the fourth race, flipped over in his paddock; Sporer saw it as a sign of discomfort. Marinos Law, set to the run in the fifth, overreached with his hind foot. Horse people call it “grabbing a quarter.” Neither of them ran that day.

After each race, the winner and one randomly chosen horse must submit to blood and urine tests. Lewis said the UC Davis lab that conducts the testing can isolate at least 1,500 separate drugs.

The stewards oversee equipment and track surfaces, too. Though no one would state it on the record, more than one horseman insisted the rash of deaths at Santa Anita was caused not by over-medication or over- aggressive trainers and jockeys, but by a dirt track that had been turned to mush by a wet winter, then dried to hardpan when the weather warmed.

Outrage over the fatalities sparked suspension of racing at Santa Anita for much of March; the suspension of famed trainer Jerry Hollendorfer; and the passage in Sacramento of Senate Bill 469, co-sponsored by state Sen. Bill Dodd, whose district includes much of Sonoma County, a measure that gives the CHRB more latitude to act quickly against offending racetracks.

Asked about Santa Rosa’s high fatality rate, Dodd, D-Napa, responded with this comment: “Race horse safety is of paramount importance and I know Sonoma County Fair officials take it seriously. At tracks that don’t, my legislation ensures the California Horse Racing Board has the authority to step in and take appropriate action to prevent further losses.”

Measuring soil compaction

In Santa Rosa, Lewis said, the fair takes soil samples from the dirt track a month before the racing begins, and sends them to a lab that might recommend the addition of fine, medium-grade or course sand, or organic materials, to specific areas of the course. The stewards also measure the track for compaction, moisture and concussive properties before and during the meet.

“It’s more keyed to the safety of the horse now than it’s ever been in the past,” Lewis said.

One strange aspect to the Santa Anita controversy is that, according to an independent analysis by NBC News that included deaths during practice runs, the 2018-19 season was actually Santa Anita’s safest since 2010, when the park installed a mile-long dirt track to replace its synthetic version. Why all the scrutiny this year?

“It’s the squeaky wheel that always gets attention,” Lewis said. “And no matter what you tell ’em, or what you try to show ’em, they’re not gonna listen to you. They’re not even gonna come out and see. Their mind is set that horse racing shouldn’t be allowed.”

Despite the protective measures, though, the horse racing industry is left with a troubling question: How many equine deaths are acceptable in a pleasure sport?

Lagging attendance, betting

There are questions, too, about the long-term viability of thoroughbred racing as attendance and betting falls away.

In Santa Rosa, figures supplied by the Sonoma County Fair Board show a nearly unbroken decline in annual racing revenue — which includes seat sales, food and beverage concessions in the grandstands, and the fairgrounds’ cut of betting handles — from $1.33 million in 2007 to less than $200,000 in 2018.

In 2010, the fair ran 15 days of racing, for a total of 952 starts. By 2018, the schedule was down to eight days, the number of starts to 412. Other California county fairs that include horse racing, like those in Fresno and Ferndale, also have seen their numbers drop, if not as steeply.

The reasons are varied. One is a general shortage of available thoroughbred foals. Some say there simply aren’t enough horses to fill out a full calendar. According to a New York Times article published in April, registered foals fell from nearly 33,000 in 2012 to 19,925 in 2018.

“Most casual bettors or people who really know it will tell you that if you don’t have seven horses running in a race, you won’t get betting money out there, because you can’t get the odds for it,” said Max Mickelsen, currently vice president of the Sonoma County Fair Board and chairman of the board’s Racing Committee. “So all of a sudden, you’re seeing six horses entered, and one gets scratched and now you have five running. Almost all of the fairs have dropped down to four days (per week) because they can’t find enough horses.”

Indeed, Pleasanton had a four-day calendar this summer. Fresno’s will be four days, too, and Ferndale’s three.

Raising horses is not an inexpensive undertaking. “The purses that we win are staying about the same. But the other costs are going up,” Tipton said.

And when the racing is in session, fewer people seem to be laying down money on it. Bettors don’t have to be on-site, either. The fair gets a percentage of all off-track-betting wagers. You can bet right from your phone now. It’s easier than ever before, yet fewer people are doing it. That same New York Times article stated that Americans bet $11 billion on horse races in 2018, down from more than $15 billion in 2002.

So fewer people are wagering on horse races, leading to shrinking profits for breeders, leading to fewer horses entered in races, leading to even less wagering. It’s a vicious circle, or perhaps an oval.

Elusive younger crowd

In general, the Sport of Kings is grappling with the same conundrum faced by other leagues and industries: American 20-somethings and teenagers are not consuming sports in the same way, or in the same numbers, as their predecessors.

Thursday at the fairgrounds, many agreed that the time between races, while necessary for grooming the track and settling the horses, is too long to hold a young person’s attention. Sonoma County Fair CEO Becky Bartling said her organization has tried to fill the empty space with T-shirt giveaways, contests and cute derby dog races. The fair conducts racing seminars for potential bettors who might be intimidated by the process. None of it has really worked. The youngest generation of consumers just doesn’t know its way around the Racing Form.

“You don’t see the youth anymore,” said Bob Moffett of Windsor. “If I go to the off-track or something, it’s mostly older people. ... You don’t know if this young generation’s gonna be there in the future, because everything’s like fast in the games and all.”

Moffett, 63, and his wife Charlene had arrived early Thursday to set up folding chairs in front of the grandstand, near the finish line. He grew up on the East Coast and went to races at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore as a kid. Now retired from the Coast Guard, he likes to make $2 bets to keep things interesting. The Moffetts had just gotten back from Del Mar, a vacation spent at the track. They planned to show up for three or four nights of racing in Santa Rosa.

Asked whether it would make him sad to see county-fair racing disappear, Bob Moffett said, “Yeah, it would. This has been a staple, but you can see the writing on the wall that there’s less revenue.”

Charlene interrupted. “It would break his heart,” she said.

No one is talking publicly about discontinuing Wine Country Racing soon.

“Would you want to be on the board of the fair when they cut out the Hall of Flowers? I don’t think so,” Mickelsen said. “I don’t want to be one of the people who put the ax to horse racing.”

But Bartling acknowledges the economic challenges of staging a complicated sporting event that attracts fewer and fewer people. “We want it to be self-sustaining,” she said. “Those revenues are important for the fairgrounds. It used to be a million and a half a year that we would generate on that. We don’t receive money from the county for our capital improvements.”

Attendance here at the track on Thursday, according to Equibase, was 2,148 people. Pretty good, by Lewis’ standards. He had just worked the California State Fair in Sacramento, where he said they had one really good day among 11.

Not good enough, by Tipton’s reckoning. He remembers standing-room-only crowds, and he doesn’t believe the Sonoma County Fair is doing enough to promote races to fans.

“They should give it to ’em for free,” he said, noting that most of the revenue comes from betting and concessions, not the $2 tickets to the grandstand.

Tipton paused to watch the eighth and final race of the day. He knew the owner of the favorite, Tribal Storm, and figured he would join him in the winner’s circle if all went as planned. But another horse, Koa, rallied in the mid-stretch and held on to win by a length and a half on the turf track.

Koa’s trainer is Jerry Hollendorfer. He has been banned at Santa Anita and his home track, Golden Gate Fields, and more recently by the state of New York. But he’s here in Santa Rosa, at a venue that can’t afford to turn away successful horsemen.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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