Once a year-round offering, harness racing returns to Cal Expo tonight for the first time since June, as the industry gets a fresh start here with a new operator, new management and a new television and online betting partner.
Cal Expo is the only harness track in the United States west of the Rockies. The five-month drought of races there is the longest at the facility since 2000.
"Everybody is pretty excited about the new meet," said Chris Schick of Golden Bear Racing, the company that will handle day-to-day management of Cal Expo's harness racing revival. "We have trainers and horses coming in from Florida, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Canada."
Headed by Schick and fellow California horseman Ben Kenney, Golden Bear has already dealt with several issues, including the temporary ouster of grooms from their longtime rooms in the stable area. Upgrades to those rooms allowed the management company to get a conditional permit from the Sacramento County fire marshal. Most of the grooms have moved back into their rooms with new windows and locks, but with many restrictions.
The event's operator Watch and Wager LLC, part of European Wagering Services also is new and is making its first foray into American harness racing. It is poised to become the first company to take advantage of a newly legal form of betting in California, called exchange wagering, that allows individuals to bet against one another on any race-related proposition.
Cal Expo had served as the track operator, but its board of directors opted to find an outside operator in an attempt to increase its racing business. Harness racing at the facility peaked in 2004, when roughly 1,000 horses filled the track's backstretch. About 200 horses are expected for the opening races this weekend.
Alan Horowitz, executive director of the California Harness Horsemen's Association, expects the new operators to aggressively try to win back fans and rebuild Cal Expo's product.
"Expect new wagers, with new guaranteed payouts, more full fields with new horses, trainers and drivers," he said.
The new harness meet is poised for the type of success that once generated about $1 million a night in wagering, more than 90 percent from outside Sacramento.
Cal Expo harness traditionally competes at night on the West Coast, starting its program after other tracks close. The new meet opens on Breeders' Cup weekend the Super Bowl of thoroughbred racing with hopes of some carryover in betting interest.
"By racing from 6 to 11 p.m. (Pacific Standard Time), we should attract an audience across all time zones, picking up East Coast fans when those tracks close, adding people in Central time and maintaining the West Coast viewer all evening," Schick said.
A new TV contract with TVG the horse racing cable network and online wagering giant guarantees Sacramento's races will be broadcast to more than 50 million homes nationwide. In return, TVG gets exclusive rights to broadcast Cal Expo's races and the requirement that online bettors use its website to place bets.
A subsidiary of U.K. wagering giant BetFair, TVG is one of America's largest legal online wagering companies, accepting more than $650 million in wagers in 2011.
To help boost its appeal, Cal Expo harness will offer the kind of low-takeout, high-return bets that make TVG's viewers click on their wagerpads, including a $25,000 guaranteed Pick 4 (a $1 wager to pick four consecutive winners) and other multi-race and multi-horse bets starting for as little as 10 cents.
More wagering means bigger purses, which means higher earnings for horsemen and their staffs.
"It's been a lean stretch for the horsemen, but we've got great new leadership with these operators," said trainer and breeder Vickie Desomer. "Right now, everybody is really enthusiastic about their leadership. We're ready to rock and roll."