The California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) this past week approved the allocation of race dates for a fall meet at Cal-Expo for harness racing starting November 2 and concluding on December 22, 2012; the allocation being approved contingent on the license approval of Golden Bear Racing which will operate the race meet for European Wagering Services (EWS). The deal continuing racing at the California Exposition Fairgrounds is for five years with EWS guaranteeing the first two years of the proposed agreement. Licensing of the new operators is expected at the August CHRB meeting.
The continuing of standardbred racing in California is a welcome development, but if there is any chance for harness racing to step back from the brink, it is necessary for standardbred racing in the Golden State to be expanded to another location as well as the number of race days in Sacramento. My understanding of the proposed deal will basically give California racing for six months, at two to three days a week; something which will not promote quality racing. It would be one thing if harness racing was occurring elsewhere out west such as in Oregon or Arizona, but to ask additional horsemen to commit to racing in the Golden State when there is only a six month meet with no more than three days of racing a week is not realistic. What horsemen are going to want to come out to California when they would have to fly back east or north to British Columbia to race the balance of the week to make ends meet as California purses have not been exactly lucrative? How many owners are gong to want to ship horses to California when they know they will either incur large shipping bills to get their horses to/from the West Coast or be forced to turn their horses out for half a year, again on limited purses? Of course, before an additional meet or days can be discussed, the racing product needs to be improved.
It is essential the national standardbred industry pays attention to California racing and support it in whatever means possible for harness racing to once again gain anything more than a regional prominence. You can't consider yourself a relevant sport when you lack or have minimal presence in the largest state population-wise in the United States. It is essential that the USTA make a commitment to help promote California racing in whatever ways it can.
Of course, getting the USTA to pay more attention to California is not a solution into itself. Both Golden Bear Racing and the CHHA must make a commitment to improving racing in California. Cal Expo racing was successful in efforts to increase handle with their partnership with TwinSpires to offer 0% takeout on their Pick 4 once a week when it was wagered on track or through Twinspires, as it was when Cal Expo paid TVG to get their Saturday night Pick 4 races shown live. While it is unrealistic to expect TwinSpires to offer a similar partnership with the meet being owned by EWS, a similar program needs to be offered or even expanded by EWS and it is essential to take advantage of the three hour time difference with the East Coast and continue getting Golden Bear racing broadcast live to stimulate wagering interest.
But all parties must go further than just continuing their previous efforts. There is a need to improve the driving colony at Sacramento by getting East Coast or Midwest drivers to head out to California, especially during the fall meet when many tracks back east close for the season. Clearly the purses alone will not induce drivers to head west, but if the CHHA and Great Bear offered stipends to induce drivers to come to California, while you will not be able to induce the very best of East Coast driving colonies, some new drivers may be induced to 'Go West' which will assist in marketing the sport to California residents as well as make the signal more desirable for gamblers back east.
California standardbred horsemen are a resilient bunch and they have been able to stave off disaster on numerous occasions, but it is important to get out of such a predicament. After all, there are only so many miracles. If you tempt fate once to often, your luck will run out.