Fewer horses, local betting down at fair

Fair’s attorney says racing meet “could make it” in late August/Labor Day 

From the September 7, 2017 print edition

Seven days of horse racing at the Humboldt County Fair overall produced the same results as six days last year, according to early numbers released this week.

Meanwhile, on-track betting showed a double-digit decline over last year and fewer horses entered races. Those results have some questioning the future of the fair’s racing program.

According to preliminary data provided by the California Horse Racing Information Management, Inc. (CHRIMS), on-track wagering by local fans decreased by $77,255 this year, dropping from $615,420 to $538,165 for a 12.5 percent drop. Wagering on Humboldt’s races at satellite facilities in California also showed a decrease, declining from $899,958 in 2016 to $744,295 this year for a drop of 17 percent. A decrease in advanced deposit wagering — betting on the internet — (dropping from $192,570 to $187,389) also contributed to an overall decline of in-state wagering on Ferndale races of 14 percent ($1,469,528 this year compared to $1,707,948 in 2016).

The only positive indication coming from the CHRIMS report was reflected in out-of-state wagering activity that showed a 23 percent increase ($1,218,507 vs. $1,498,525), bringing the overall, preliminary total handle to $2,968,377 this year, compared to $2,926,454 in 2016, for a one-percent increase.

Such were the results of a meet that included the additional cost of one more race day (seven days this year, versus six last year), produced the same number of total races (50), and a per-race decrease in on-track wagering of $1,545.

Short fields of horses, made even worse with race-day scratches — several races had only four horses entered with one race seeing only three approach the gate — played a key role in decreased wagering, according to program officials. Calculations show that the average starters per race dropped from 6.06 in 2016 to 5.5 this year.

“What happens when you card too many fives (five-horse fields) like that, is you then get too many scratches,” said HCF Racing Secretary Tom Doutrich — an employee of the California Authority of Racing Fairs — during a local ESPN radio interview Monday night in front of The Ivanhoe. “We have very little going our way, very little from the CHRB (California Horse Racing Board). And, if it doesn’t change, we’re in trouble.”

HCF General Manager Richard Conway did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Doutrich was speaking about the process by which the CHRB allocates racing dates in California each year and the odds of Humboldt receiving at least one week not run simultaneously with any other Northern California race track or fair next year.

“The whole problem starts with the CHRB,” said Doutrich. “The State of California owns the racing dates and we’re the bottom-level fair. We’re trying to hang in there and we’re doing all the calculations to stay alive.”

Keeping the HCF alive was a matter addressed by others invited by local broadcaster, Tag Wotherspoon, to participate in Monday’s show.

“We need to get unoverlapped,” said horse owner Allen Aldrich, who currently serves on the board of directors of the Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC). “The TOC are a southern-based group and they don’t give any importance to Northern California. When I get home, I’ll be filling out some paperwork to send to the governor, because I would love to be on the CHRB and, hopefully, get something done at that level.”

Aldrich was referring to Governor Jerry Brown, whose many responsibilities include appointing people to serve on the CHRB.

While the wagering numbers showed noticeable declines this year, this year’s fair running later in the year and through Labor Day weekend — coinciding with county students return to school — was not construed as a negative, according to one fair representative.

“I think we could make it on this late-August, early September thing,” said James Morgan, a Walnut Creek resident and attorney who has represented the fair on a pro-bono basis in horse racing matters since 2012. “The people from the Bay Area want to come up here and escape the heat.”

While hoping to somehow receive unoverlapped dates next year, Morgan also recognized the difficult political and economic hurdles that must be cleared in the process.

“I think we’re at the mercy of the CHRB and the calendar,” said Morgan. “We don’t have enough clout because the TOC and CTT (California Thoroughbred Trainers) see the numbers are better when Golden Gate Fields (GGF) runs.”

GGF is the privately owned one-mile racetrack in Berkeley that runs simultaneously with Humboldt and generates more money industry-wide during that two-week period than the HCF does at its half-mile oval.

“When the horse racing game becomes a calculation in numbers and they say everybody bets more on GGF, rather than the HCF—therefore Humboldt shouldn’t be unoverlapped— we have a challenge that’s hard statistically to get over,” said Morgan.

Humboldt was successful in receiving one week of exclusive race dates in 2010, when former fair GM, Stuart Titus, was able to get a favorable 4-3 vote from the CHRB, giving the HCF one week unoverlapped. Titus’s success in 2010 created windfall profits for the HCF that led the way to a financial turn-around for the organization. Strong industry pushback, however, returned Humboldt to running simultaneously with GGF since that time, as overall statewide losses to the industry due to the HCF running solo in 2010 totaled approximately $800,000. In the intervening years, Titus was able to negotiate agreements with various industry stakeholders, so that the HCF’s bottom line could be sustained. When Titus was let go by the HCF Board of Directors in early 2013, the organization’s operating reserve showed a balance of approximately $500,000. Those reserves have plummeted by almost 60 percent since Titus’s departure and the previously negotiated stakeholders agreements were made null and void in 2016 when GGF decided it could no longer subsidize the HCF program.

Although this year’s move by the HCF to a Labor Day finale and an added day of racing failed to produce favorable results, some fair representatives considered the decision as a positive move.

“If we don’t get unoverlapped (dates), the HCF will still survive as a racing fair because of the tenacity and determination of people like you (Wotherspoon, Doutrich and Aldrich) that support the fair, and the fact we can become the Saratoga, the Del Mar of the Oregon circuit, because even though we have diminishing purses, we’re still three times what Tillamook is, right?” said Morgan.

Morgan was referring to the summer fair racing circuit in Oregon that includes one weekend in the coastal community of Tillamook.

According to comments on the Monday radio broadcast, 40 to 50 percent of horses entered in the 2017 HCF race meet were from the Oregon, Washington and Idaho areas. Conway, in the fair’s racing application to the CHRB earlier this year, said the fair anticipated offering the public 12 races a day. Instead, an average of seven races a day were offered.

The next meeting of the CHRB is scheduled for September 28 in Los Alamitos, when it’s expected that 2018 race dates will next be discussed.

(Disclosure: Former HCF general manager Stuart Titus is married to The Enterprise publisher and editor.)

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