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