Track gets relief from state’s shift

With the recession prompting the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club to consider cost-saving measures, such as closing on Mondays for the 2009 summer race meet, the state has taken measures to help the track and the rest of California’s struggling horse racing industry.

Beginning July 1, horseracing will no longer provide upwards of $32 million to state fairs every year. Instead, that money will come from the state’s general fund.

For more than 70 years, horseracing has contributed $32 million toward infrastructure improvements for the state’s 78 fairs, plus another $8 million to fund the California Horseracing Board. However, in recent years, the industry’s license fee income has fallen behind inflation and the horseracing board’s budget has increased to $11.9 million, meaning both racing and fairs were feeling the squeeze.

“We were going to lose two industries if we did not take action,” said Craig Fravel, vice president of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.

Legislation decoupling horseracing from state fairs was passed with the state budget in February. Now, state fairs will have a more stable source of income. The change has no impact on the Del Mar Fairgrounds; it received little to no funding from the state because it is self-sufficient.

The horseracing industry will now only be required to fund its own board, which regulates the industry and conducts drug testing. This generally frees up money to increase purse sizes so California can remain competitive with other states that are allowed to use slot machine revenue to pad winnings.

However, at a time when the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club is figuring out how to ride out the recession, the roughly $800,000 the club will hold onto will go toward providing a top-notch race meet, not increasing purses.

“It’s not going to be a big, huge windfall for us,” Fravel said, who lobbied for two years for the funding change. “But it will help us sustain ourselves through the difficult economy.”

The club has already trimmed $2.6 million from its annual operating budget. Del Mar is also attempting to reduce the number of racing days each week from six to five, specifically, closing on Monday as well as Tuesday. The racing board is expected to review the request in April.

Not racing on Monday saves money because some of those races were not bringing in as much as the track was paying out, and it helps increase competition on other days.

“For any entertainment or spectator-driven sport, overexposure is never a good thing,” Fravel said. “We’re trying to improve the quality of our daily product.”

Race fans should be assured that despite cut backs, the 2009 race meet is “not going to be bare bones,” said spokesman Mac McBride, “it’s going to be a big, vibrant meet, just like we always do, we’re just going to do it smarter.”