Change in state racing calendar is a sure thing

Published: Friday, May. 24, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Tuesday, May. 28, 2013 - 9:14 am

Cal Expo and local fans may benefit from the upheaval of California's horse racing calendar, but how much is still to be seen.

One thing is certain: Under a new operator, Sacramento's harness meet is on much firmer footing and likely will expand next fall. Watch & Wager/Golden Bear Racing concludes its first meet Saturday night after posting huge gains in wagering and expanding its national reputation.

While the standardbreds take a break, thoroughbred racing returns July 14 to Cal Expo for eight racing days during the first two weeks of the State Fair.

But starting in 2014, Cal Expo's annual summer meet likely will be retooled because of the state's new calendar for Southern California racing. Cal Expo may add days or move back to late August and Labor Day week – or both.

"Right now, we're busy planning for our 160th birthday fair," new Cal Expo general manager Rick Pickering said. "We're open to talking with the industry (about more or different dates), but we can't do it without industry support."

During a contentious five-hour meeting Thursday in the Cal Expo grandstand, the California Horse Racing Board approved a master calendar for 2014 and 2015 – without Hollywood Park. Hollywood's owners announced May 9 that the cornerstone of California racing will close permanently in December to make way for redevelopment.

The CHRB's approval of the calendar came with numerous caveats because many issues – such as where horses will train – still need to be worked out. But the board voted unanimously to establish a Southern California calendar as a framework for change.

"Kicking everything down the road doesn't accomplish anything," said CHRB chairman David Israel, who refused to postpone the vote. "All it does is delay the inevitable, and less work gets done. This gives everybody a plan to go forward and work out a final resolution."

The CHRB delayed a decision on Northern California dates until next month.

Watch & Wager/Golden Bear will request at least a month more harness racing at Cal Expo. If approved by the CHRB, its fall meet will open Oct. 5.

Golden Bear's Chris Schick pointed to many positives. Cal Expo's nightly handle increased 24.4 percent over 2012 to an average of $831,168. That was paced by nearly $300,000 a night in out-of-state wagering (up 65.4 percent) and a 40.2 percent increase in online wagering.

"Looking ahead, our industry is still struggling," Schick said. "Some people thought we'd never open, but overall people are generally happy now. We're really looking forward to next fall."

The new calendar relies heavily on Santa Anita in Arcadia and Del Mar in north San Diego County.

Absorbing 11 weeks of Hollywood's former schedule, Santa Anita expands its winter-spring meet from Dec. 26 to the July 4 weekend. After a short gap, Del Mar adds an extra week to its summer season, running from mid-July through Labor Day week.

Fairplex in Pomona will have 13 days in September during the Los Angeles County Fair. Then Santa Anita reopens for six weeks, culminating with the Breeders' Cup the first weekend in November. Santa Anita will host the 2013 Breeders' Cup world championships and hopes to receive the 2014 Cup, too.

Del Mar reopens for an autumn meet through the first week of December, replacing Hollywood's fall dates. Del Mar also wants to host a Breeders' Cup and, under this tentative plan, that lucrative weekend will be traded between Santa Anita and Del Mar in alternate years.

Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.

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