Pomona Fairplex President and Chief Executive James Henwood ended months of negotiations Thursday when he formally proposed that the 17-day Los Angeles County Fair horse racing meet be moved to Santa Anita Park in Arcadia.
Roy Wood, executive director of the California Horse Racing Board, approved Henwood's request to make the issue an agenda item at the board's next meeting, June 6 at Bay Meadows Race Track in San Mateo. If a majority of the seven CHRB members approves the proposal, horse racing will end after 63 seasons at Fairplex and the "L.A. County Fair Meet at Santa Anita" season will begin Sept. 13.
"Santa Anita fills all our desires," Henwood wrote in his two-page proposal letter to Wood. "It is a major and historic race venue.... It will allow the LACF to conduct turf racing, as well as racing on the main track, will allow us to attract quality horses, improve our stakes program and provide Southern California horsemen and race fans a better racing experience than we could provide them at Fairplex."
Henwood negotiated the deal with Santa Anita's Jack Liebau, president of California operations for Magna Entertainment Corp., after negotiations for a similar facility lease arrangement collapsed with Hollywood Park President Rick Baedeker in March.
Terms of the deal are expected to be revealed at the board meeting. Baedeker said he will oppose the move. So will Sherwood Chillingworth, the executive vice president of the Oak Tree Racing Assn. The Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita runs Oct. 2-Nov. 5.
"Basically, we will become a continuation of their meet," Chillingworth said. "To a great degree, we will have a different betting population coming in. A meet lasting 17 days in front of ours will certainly invade our betting pool. I'm also hearing they want to run Breeders' Cup prep races. That will damage our stakes schedule."
In a Fairplex release announcing the agreement with Santa Anita, it was noted that racing industry organizations have long endorsed racing on a one-mile track, including a turf course, in preparation for Breeders' Cup races. This year's Breeders' Cup event is Oct. 26. Next year's Breeders' Cup is at Santa Anita during the Oak Tree meeting.
Chillingworth could add powerful supporters to his argument. Craig Fravel, executive vice president of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, said his group has not determined its stance. Del Mar's meeting immediately precedes Fairplex's. John Van de Kamp, president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, said his group is similarly undecided. A conference call will be scheduled to finalize the owners' stance before June 6.
"There are some negatives to [the move]," Van de Kamp said. "Instead of a 30-day stretch [with Oak Tree], it's a 50-day meet. Is that too long? We were under the impression the move was going to be to Hollywood Park, where the weather's cooler.
"It is an asset to have a mile track and grass, but will the meet stay fresh?"
Fairplex Park, with a five-eighths mile dirt track and tight turns, caters to second-tier jockeys and trainers during a season horse racing's more notable figures usually reserve for vacations. Last year, track attendance declined 2% from the 2000 season to 121,497, on-track wagering dipped 3% to $12,444,542.10 and inter-track wagering dropped 5% to $53,260,173.20.
Fairplex's sentimental charm will be part of the debate, according to CHRB member Roger Licht.
"My wife [Mary Lou] went to the races for the first time there," Licht said. "If I feel there's a compelling reason to move the meet, I will vote for it, but one of the charters in horse racing law is to promote fairs."
Said CHRB member John Harris: "Pomona has a rich heritage and it brings a unique atmosphere to racing. It's the only Southern California fair with racing and it brings new fans into racing."
Harris is the most likely board member to vote against the move. He said leaving Fairplex Park will impact horsemen, fans, track executives, vendors and unions.
"We debated for six months if we should allow advertisements on the [jockeys'] silks," he said. "My point is we need more time to review this. A move like this needs to be very well debated."
CHRB spokesman Mike Marten said the board will either vote on the issue June 6 or agree to delay its vote to the July 25 meeting in Del Mar. Henwood must submit an application to move the dates before June 15.
Fairplex would continue to offer satellite wagering if the racing moves.