Photo: Benoit Photo
Prior to 2014, at the conclusion of the winter meet,
Hollywood Park had remained open as a training facility and as overflow stall
space for the nearly 2500 active racing thoroughbreds operating in Southern
California. Santa Anita only has 1850 stalls available for all horses. When you
count all of the stable ponies housed for trainers and by the track, and some
25 open stalls for horses travelling into Arcadia for races, this leaves even
less stall space for race-ready horses.
The closure of Hollywood Park did not come as a surprise to
anyone, so one would assume that the California Horse Racing Board would have
had ample time to plan and communicate the overflow strategy to trainers,
owners, and track organizers. Yet this apparently didn’t happen. And the result
is disorganization in the Golden State. Stakes races are drawing field sizes
that can be counted on a single hand. We are less than two weeks into 2014 and
we have had two Kentucky Derby and Oaks point races that have gone to post with
four horses. Four!
California has traditionally been a springboard for
many Kentucky Derby and Oaks participants and winners. For doing so, the west coast prep
races have been awarded as qualifying races for the new respective Derby and
Oaks points’ systems. However, four horse fields, for the prestigious
prep races, is a far cry from a success.
Politics are tough. They are not for everyone. I am sure
there is quite a bit of political maneuvering that takes place on the CHRB to
keep all parties satisfied with the decisions that are made. They have the
California government, the trainers, the horse owners, the track organizers,
and many others to keep happy. Its not an easy job, but I feel they are
overlooking a huge entity that makes up the majority of the racing industry.
That is me, you, and every other patron that places a wager on the races that
are being run.
The CHRB posts transcripts from each of their monthly
meetings on the official CHRB website. If you are in need a good read, and want
an even better laugh, check them out. When I first read them, I expected a
professional discussion that included known facts, statistics, business
prospectus, business forecasts, financial analysis, etc. Instead I read what
can only be described as a typical break room “water cooler chat.” Decisions
were being made based on assumptions. More effort was put on being polite than trying
to drive conclusions.
As you continue to read through the minutes, you may reach a
similar conclusion that I did. The CHRB would not be able to project manage
themselves out of a cardboard box. There is no organization amongst the topics,
any kind of documented procedure for making decisions, and an overall lack of
proper decorum. If this is how a company was run in the business world, I have
a feeling that it would not last very long before filing for bankruptcy.
This is even more evident by the $2 million deficit in the Stabling
and Vanning Committee that is responsible for moving the horses around amongst
the various satellite facilities and racing venues. On top of the deficit,
there is nearly a 6 month delay to get the facilities their payments for
operating costs. Going back to the disorganization of the closure of Hollywood
Park, one option for overflow horses was Fairplex. Officials from Fairplex
offered 500 stalls for thoroughbreds, but at a very high premium due to the
short notice to find labor and winterize the track surface. However, Fairplex
was not absolutely required from a stall number perspective. There is a surplus
of empty stalls without Fairplex, but there is risk of running short when
new 2 year olds start arriving to trainer’s barns in February. The CHRB is
willing to increase the deficit for a risk that is not even properly calculated
with data to support the decision. No one knows the exact number of 2 year olds
that will arrive in February, but I don’t think this is the first time
California has had a new crop of horses arrive for training. Not once was
previous crop size and number of new horses mentioned when making a
mutli-million dollar decision.
So how does all of this effect field size of Derby and Oaks
prep races? Trainers could have missed deadlines. Interruptions in training
from playing musical horse stalls could have had trainers not want to risk the
horse’s fitness or condition. Perhaps there is no correlation at all.
I have found myself asking how I would fix this. I represent
the customer base. The CHRB is delivering a product. And right now, 4 horse
fields in stakes races is not very high quality. I am disgruntled. What are you
going to do to fix it, CHRB? So, if anyone from the CHRB is reading this,
here’s my solution.
Step 1: Do what you can to establish and maintain a quality
product. If this means mudding the waters of trainer / CHRB relationships or
even personal relationships within the board, then you do it. You’re not here
to make friends and make every single person in the industry happy. You’re here
to ensure the best racing you can for your customer base. Add purse bonuses for
races that fill beyond a certain number of entries. Hire people to help manage
the stall situation so trainers can focus on having horses prepared to race. Work
with racing commissions outside of California to fill races if it cannot be
Step 2: Get a good project manager. Find someone who can
drive a schedule and prioritize the necessary decisions to ensure that schedule
does not slip. Decisions about stall space should not be finalized a few weeks
before the closure of Hollywood Park. This should be done months ahead of time
to budget and allow the facilities to prepare.
Step 3: Balance the budget. Don’t take on unnecessary costs
to cover up the mistakes that have been previously made. When evaluating where
money should go, remember Step 1. A quality product is more important than
staying on someone’s holiday card list. Never cut costs on anything that will
directly effect the product quality. It is better to have fewer races that are of
very high quality, as opposed to a large number of races that are of low
quality. Hopefully the recent board approval of Madeline Auerbach will help with this.
Step 4: Solve the problems that exist today and not the ones
that may exist in the future. It is good to have foresight to the future, but
solving the problems that exist today will make the problems that exist
tomorrow more manageable.
Step 5: Take responsibility. Mistakes will be made. Whether
it’s the concession stand attendant at Santa Anita or the accountant of the entire
industry, there will always be mistakes. However, when mistakes are made, own
up to them and ensure a corrective action. The first step to solving a problem
is admitting there is one.
The trust of your customer base is the most important thing
you can work for. If you put that first, then there is no way you can fail.