(Editor’s Note: Ray Paulick’s Report, based at Lexington, Kentucky, is an authoritative home for Thoroughbred racing news shining light on the horse industry. North America’s leading independent Thoroughbred racing website can be found at www.paulickreport.com.)
California’s horse racing industry has never been good at long-range planning. Instability will do that. Historic Bay Meadows racetrack in San Mateo in the Bay Area was shuttered for development in 2008. The same company that closed Bay Meadows had purchased Hollywood Park in Inglewood near Los Angeles in 2005 and almost immediately threatened to close that track, too, unless some form of relief from expanded gambling came along. It never did, and the “track of lakes and flowers” ran its last race in 2013. Despite advance warnings, the industry seemed unprepared when the tracks closed.
Thoroughbred breeders and owners like stability. The timeline from planning to breeding to foaling to racing is a four-year process. Owners who buy yearlings or 2-year-olds in training at public auction are looking at months to years before they can see their investments competing on the racetrack.
Instability, along with challenging economics, have led to serious declines in California breeding. The state’s Thoroughbred foal crop in 2006 – the one eligible to race in that final year at Bay Meadows – numbered 3,320. The most recent California foal crop was 1,594 in 2019, a 52% drop over 13 years. There appears to be no slowing down, either. The number of mares bred in California fell by 12.5% from 2019 to 2020, from 2,018 to 1,766 mares, according to the breed’s official registry, The Jockey Club.
Looking down the road, at least one more California racetrack is destined to close in the not-so-distant future. Dr. Edward Allred, the 84-year-old owner of Los Alamitos in Cypress, has made no secret of the fact his track will be developed in a matter of years. To his credit, Allred stepped up to provide additional stabling when Hollywood Park closed and expanded the Quarter Horse racing surface to accommodate year-round training, plus several weeks of Thoroughbred racing annually. Allred has been sufficiently compensated; in addition to host simulcast revenue during live Thoroughbred race meets, Los Alamitos receives $12,500 daily from the state’s Stabling and Vanning Committee for providing 825 stalls.
Stabling at Los Alamitos was a stopgap measure. It’s time for the California Thoroughbred industry to develop a longer-term solution that provides some stability to the state’s owners and breeders if racing is to have a future there.
Del Mar, just to the north of San Diego, could be the answer. The track races 12 weeks annually, with separate summer and fall meets, then closes its stables the rest of the year.
The racetrack property is owned by the state of California and leased by the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club from the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which until 2020 has hosted the annual San Diego County Fair – one of the largest in the United States. The fair represented a sizable percentage of the 22nd District’s annual revenue, but so did its lease agreement with the Thoroughbred Club, especially since the races traditionally attract large crowds that spend significant sums on food and beverage.
This year’s fair, along with on-track attendance at Del Mar’s summer and fall meets, were nixed by the coronavirus pandemic. The 22nd District took an enormous financial hit – revenue is down 90% – and without deep cash reserves it was forced to lay off 60% of its work force of 157 full-time employees.
Year-round stabling would supply a significant financial boost to the 22nd District, provided Del Mar would get the same per diem arrangement Los Alamitos currently enjoys. There would be hurdles to clear to make this possible, one of them being the San Diego County Fair that traditionally begins in early June and runs through July 4 is so big that it spills onto the racetrack and into the stable area. Downsizing the fair, however, may be a necessity in the wake of COVID-19.
Because it is a state-owned facility and not subject to the pressures of development, Del Mar presents an excellent long-term option for year-round training and, if given the opportunity, expanded live race meets. The track has already satisfied federal Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) water runoff requirements, something many other tracks are struggling with. Another benefit to year-round stabling could put the city of Del Mar in compliance with a state law requiring a minimum amount of housing for low-income families. Stable employees living on the backstretch might check that box.
California trainers surveyed for this story said they would jump at the opportunity to maintain part of their stable at Del Mar. Some speculate that Midwest or East Coast trainers would be more inclined to maintain an auxiliary string of horses in California if Del Mar played an expanded role.
“We need to have viable long-term racing and training venues in Southern California,” Thoroughbred Owners of California president Greg Avioli said. “There’s no question owners and trainers appreciate the opportunity to train at Del Mar, and should the opportunity present itself for year-round training, it’s definitely something the TOC would consider.”
California can’t afford to wait for the next track to close before developing a better blueprint for training and racing, for stability in the industry. The time is now to work on that plan.
That’s my view from the eighth pole.