The Del Mar Fairgrounds is taking legislative action to allow a possible increase in the number of racing days at Del Mar in anticipation of the possible closure of Los Angeles-area racetrack Hollywood Park in the coming years.
Assembly Bill 2205, sponsored by Martin Garrick, R-Carlsbad, would allow the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which hosts the Del Mar summer race meet, to take over weeks currently allocated to Los Angeles-area tracks, if a track closes.
“If, when Hollywood Park decides not to operate any more, when those dates are talked about, we want to be at the table,” said Tim Fennell, general manager of the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
California law divides 93 racing weeks between three zones: 44 weeks in the northern zone, 42 weeks in the central zone, which are shared by Hollywood Park and Santa Anita racetracks, and seven weeks at Del Mar in the southern zone.
A.B. 2205, which is halfway through the approval process, would amend state law to permit the California Horse Racing Board to allocate central zone weeks to Del Mar, as long as the total number of weeks in the central and southern zone does not exceed 49.
In other words, if Hollywood Park closes, the bill would allow some or all of its 100 racing days to be transferred to Del Mar.
Officials from Del Mar and Santa Anita are privately negotiating how to divvy up the racing days.
“We’re not looking to be greedy,” Fennell said. “We have a very successful summer race meet and we don’t want to do anything that’s going to negatively impact that.”
Fennell said he imagines possibly adding a “small, three, four, five” week race meet in the fall, and possibly another small meet in early winter.
These events would not attract nearly the same crowds as the seven-week summer meet, Fennell said. Average daily attendance is anticipated between 6,000 to 8,000 people, one-third the average daily summer turnout.
“It’s still a nice day,” Fennell said, “but it’s not going to create a lot of traffic impacts.”
Solana Beach City Council members are not so sure. They have expressed concerns more racing days will expand “summer traffic” year-round, as well as increase light and noise pollution, and the possibility for crime.
“Whatever it is,” Solana Beach Mayor Joe Kellejian said. “It’s going to have an impact and our voices need to be heard.”
The bill took many Solana Beach officials by surprise and some criticized Assemblyman Garrick for not discussing the bill’s possible impacts on the surrounding cities with them before it was introduced in February.
“There needs to be studies before any decisions are made,” said Deputy Mayor Dave Roberts. “The fairgrounds’ environmental document is talking about adding a condo-hotel, a convention center - it is too much intensity for that piece of property.”
Garrick, who has since spoken with Solana Beach officials, said “we have to balance” the challenges more traffic may present with the economic benefits provided by more racing at Del Mar.
“The bill is meant to preserve the number of racing days in Southern California and preserve the whole sport of horseracing,” Garrick said, who is carrying the bill at the request of the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
California horseracing, while a $3 billion industry, faces significant challenges to remain competitive with other states that allow racetracks to fatten purses with on-site slot machine revenue.
The looming closure of Bay Meadows and quite possibly Hollywood Park (whose owners said unless they could install slot machines, they would redevelop the property because horseracing no longer made economic sense) compounds the problem. If 2,000 horses don’t have a place to train throughout the year; they are going to move elsewhere.
“Horseracing in California is like the Titanic,” Fennell said. “We can see the iceberg on the horizon; we have got to figure out a way to turn the ship before we hit the iceberg.”
Ensuring racing dates are not lost solves only part of the problem, Del Mar Councilman Carl Hilliard said, but sees the benefits for the region.
“A fall and winter meet would draw additional people during slow times, help fill up hotel rooms, restaurants and shops,” said Hilliard, a horseman.
A fall meet would also open the door for Del Mar to host the high-stakes Breeders Cup, which would bring millions to the area, Hilliard said.
The horseracing board has not taken a position on the proposed bill, but “a transfer will happen,” if Hollywood Park closes, said board spokesman Mike Marten.
The way the bill is worded technically allows for all 49 weeks for the central and southern zones to be transferred to Del Mar.
“That will never happen,” Fennell said.
As long as Santa Anita is still open, their weeks stay put. And, there is talk of upgrading the Los Angeles County Fair track for higher-end thoroughbred racing.
“Anytime you give somebody authorization to do something, it gives me cause for concern that it’s going to happen,” Roberts said. “If its not the intent then let’s not write legislation that says it.”