California is racing into the future, or maybe not. As of writing, there is turmoil and uncertainty as to how racing will develop in the immediate future. A long-term prognosis is even more uncertain. The California Legislature has placed a stranglehold on funding for the California Horse Racing Board.
The confirmation of one CHRB Commissioner is being threatened, while three other Commissioners are considering resigning in protest. In Northern California, Bay Meadows racetrack is refusing to commit to racing but refusing to provide information on when they will quit racing. Similarly in Southern California, Hollywood Park racetrack continues to operate, but has let it be known that the guillotine is poised to drop. The picture is confused, and the confusion is complicated because of a prior mandate that all tracks racing more than four consecutive weeks install synthetic surfaces before 2008.
Whether or not this all gets straightened out in the near future, and I suspect it will, it makes a fascinating story about racing, money, land speculation, personalities, and politics. The underlying theme of all this is the use of vast amounts of pension fund cash to purchase assets that are valuable for both their land value and their speculative value. The properties in question are possible beneficiaries of “mitigation funds” that may come from California Indian tribes. Stockbridge Capital, the owner of both Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows, invested pension fund money to buy what it saw as undervalued real estate. The plan was to close the tracks and reap the rewards of putting the land to its best use. Somewhere along the way the investor discovered there was a way to make a fortune in easy money while still holding the land for its continuing appreciation. A circumstance like this one is probably the derivation of the expression, “have your cake and eat it, too.”
THE REAL ESTATE ANGLE:
The law requires that Indian tribes pay “mitigation” to industries affected because of decreases in revenue due to Indian gaming. Horse racing is clearly one of those industries. Stockbridge claims it is entitled to $25 million per year for each property it owns. That amount, in addition to what they can make off of racing, makes it worth while for them to keep their properties as racetracks. It’s a nice situation to be in, $50 million a year, with no work and no expenditure of effort. The Indian tribes aren’t falling for the deal. The days of buying Manhattan for beads are long gone. At a recent convention of Indian Gaming Tribes, the mere mention of the word “mitigation” brought an angry reaction from the crowd. “No mitigation, hell no, no mitigation” was the response. With the exception of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association, every other segment of the industry recognizes the pie-in-the-sky nature of the demands of Stockbridge.
The Commissioners of the California Horse Racing Board are caught in a trap. They mandated installation of synthetic surfaces and Bay Meadows wants permission to race for some unspecified period without installing the surface. Golden Gate Fields planned to have a synthetic surface in this summer. Golden Gate management believed it deserved extra dates for meeting the mandate, and the majority of CHRB Board members believe they ought to have those extra dates if they comply with the mandate and have a safer surface. When Bay Meadows asked to be allowed to run for two years without a synthetic surface, the CHRB Board members said “no.” Terry Fancher, who is the Managing Partner of Stockbridge Capital Group, has spent what he calls a fortune for political contributions in Sacramento trying to “help racing.” One must assume he has, therefore, been able to make friends in the Legislature. Along comes State Senator Leland Yee, who represents the district in which Bay Meadows is located. He attacks the CHRB members who voted to deny Bay Meadows the right to run without a synthetic surface. He introduces SR 14, a resolution calling for the State Senate to ask for the resignation of CHRB Chairman Richard Shapiro. He also threatens to derail the confirmation of Commissioner John Amerman. And the most recent twist architected by Senator Yee was to have the CHRB budget zeroed out, which could lead to the cessation of racing throughout the State. This story has the aura of the 1971 Roman Polanski film, “Chinatown.” Racing is in the middle of a real life screenplay.
In reality, all Richard Shapiro has done is to be the most effective and constructive leader of the CHRB in the past two decades. He has made his chairmanship a full-time job, without remuneration. He has been the activist the industry has long needed. And he has worked tirelessly for the benefit of horsemen, for the control of drugs and medication, and for the safety of horses. Commissioner Amerman has improved the Board by bringing his wisdom, long-time knowledge of the industry, experience, and success to the table and supported the same programs as Commissioner Shapiro.
Senator Yee has a different agenda. He wants to use his political power to keep racing alive at Bay Meadows. Apparently, he doesn’t care about the fact that the ownership of Bay Meadows won’t make any commitment or agreement to race. He doesn’t care about the fact that the Bay Meadows management is willing to leave horsemen without any ability to plan for the future or to create alternative racing sites. And he certainly doesn’t care about the safety of the horses and the riders. He says he wants to prevent people from losing their jobs. There will be no lost jobs. The jobs will move to the new venues. He just wants to keep them in San Mateo for a short period of time at the expense of the entire racing industry.
No doubt all this political posturing will pass and it may well have passed by the time this magazine reaches the reader. One suspects that common sense will outpace political decadence. Sacramento politics often seems to encourage people to start with the most outrageous position one can take and back-off throughout the political process. None the less, the Leland Yee anti-CHRB campaign makes a juicy story. Unfortunately, it leaves a lot of wasted energy and anxiety in its wake. Senator Yee is either naively listening to a string of misinformation or is exhibiting callous disregard for the welfare of the 40,000 to 50,000 thousand people whose families are supported by the racing industry. One wonders how his sole purpose could be to get a few more days of racing at Bay Meadows in 2008.
Horsemen can be assured of one thing. The industry has put together contingency plans. Should Bay Meadows fail to race in 2008, the racetrack at Pleasanton is ready to step in and fill the void probably with a new synthetic surface, an expanded barn area, and improved fan facilities. The fairs are willing to realign their schedules to improve the quality of summer racing. The proposed schedule also includes a continuing series of turf racing opportunities. That is a first for Northern California and would be a considerable improvement over the current situation. It may just turn out that the death of Bay Meadows breathes new life into what has been a slow lingering decline in Northern California racing. If readers want to express any thoughts on this issue, a good place to start would be with a letter to Senator Leland Yee at State Capitol, Room 4048, Sacramento, CA 95814. His telephone number is (916) 651-4008. A copy should go to Senator Don Perata, State Capitol, Room 205, Sacramento, CA 95814. (916) 651-4009.