Cindy Olsen-Bugenig doesn't count on how many horses are coming to the races at the Humboldt County Fair until she "can see the whites of their eyes crossing Fernbridge." Olsen-Bugenig, herself a racing horse owner and breeder since 1979, is the vice-president of the Humboldt County Fair Association and chair of its Racing Committee. The total number of racehorses in the state of California has dropped precipitously since the 2008 financial crisis. To attract more owners, trainers and horses to Ferndale's half-mile racecourse, the HCFA and the California Association of Racing Fairs is relying on a number of new strategies.
"We're here for the little guy," says Olsen-Bugenig. "The horses that we get here are the ones that run the lower-end races at the big tracks. They might not be able to win at those tracks because the quality of horses is probably better than what they are, so they come here and sometimes they can run twice, because we have two weekends of racing so they can make their money here at this meet and survive to live another year."
The track in Ferndale runs "claiming races" with a claim of $2,500. What that means, in essence, is that anyone with a racing license can claim a horse prior to a race if they put up that sum and claim ownership after the race. (Multiple claims are settled with the roll of a die.) The conceit of a claiming race is that it equalizes the value of the horses; the owner of a horse worth $13,000 wouldn't risk losing it at a claiming race of $2,500.
"You can't get emotionally attached, well, that's easy to say. I cried when I lost my first one for weeks," says Olsen-Bugenig.
Spectators can place bets on their favorites at the booths in the middle of the grandstands, beginning as low as $1. The odds for each horse to win are featured on a sign on the track, and they'll fluctuate according to how much is being bet. Olsen-Bugenig recommends watching the post parade, in which the horses walk the track for display prior to the race, to get a good idea of which horse might be a comer.
"You can watch their movements, if they're on their toes, or if they're just nodding off while they're walking," she says. "I like the ones that have the energy."
Gamblers can also read a racing form with stats about the horses' past performances prior to the race or "just rely on pure, blind luck." If you wait for the post parade, however, you'll have about eight minutes afterward in which to place your bets. The average race, measured in furlongs, lasts mere seconds, with horses covering the 4-furlong (half mile) length of the fairgrounds racetrack at an average rate of about 12 seconds per furlong. The unusually short length of the Humboldt County racetrack has been a disincentive for some jockeys, says Olsen-Bugenig, given that it means a sharp turn not far out of the gate. About six years ago, the fair association "banked" two of the turns, smoothing them out and making them safer. The track is also soil rather than a grass "turf course," which puts off some owners worried about impact to their horses' bodies.
But the biggest issue at play, Olsen-Bugenig says, is money. Gas prices have risen, as has the price of feed. California has an increasing number of regulations for the testing and safety of horses. For these reasons, many folks in the business choose to go out of state.
"It's expensive," says Larry Swartzlander, executive director of CARF. "It's just an expensive sport. California doesn't have the luxury of slot machines or a lottery to supplement purses."
Many other states allow "racinos," casinos where a percentage money generated from slot machines pays into the purse horses can win at the track. In California, where slot gambling is restricted to Indian casinos on sovereign land, this is not an option.
Swartzlander sees two new sports betting initiatives that will be on the ballot this fall as potential boons to the industry, a way to add money that might not only incentivize people to keep racing in the state but get into the business in the first place.
"Purses need to be raised, they need to be incentivized to buy that racehorse," he says. "Here, a $5,000 claimer runs for [a] $15,000 [purse]. In New York, he runs for $44,000."
Swartzlander adds that the total impact of the initiatives is not clear, but says his group is trying to find ways to make inroads with a new generation that is increasingly online rather than on the track, including adding fantasy league betting to horseracing.
CARF has estimated about 220 horses will enter the races in Ferndale this month, which will average out to about six horses per race. This is less than some previous years, which saw eight horses per race, but it's enough to draw a crowd.
"I'm a guy who thinks the glass is half full," says Swartzlander. "We're working on incentives."
Along with adding money to the purse, which CARF did this year, the HCFA has worked to create extra incentives for horse owners and trainers to make the trip, including giving them gas cards to compensate for increased fuel costs.
The big event for the Humboldt County Fair is the Marathon, a full mile and five-eighths, a length Olsen-Bugenig says is "almost unheard of." The purse for the marathon is $20,000.
"Everyone wants to have a marathon horse," she says. "That's why they come up here."
In previous years, Olsen-Bugenig recalls, the jockeys would keep dried peas in their pockets and throw them out when they made a turn to remember how many laps they had left for the Marathon.
Olsen-Bugenig and her cohort also see an opening for more entries into Maiden Races, which are reserved for horses that have never had a win, also referred to as "maidens." In the horseracing community, Ferndale has become known as a "Maiden Breaker," a decidedly outdated term used to refer to racetracks where horses can prove themselves before moving up the ranks.
"So, I'm thinking if we add more money to those maidens, maybe we can get some more from Golden Gate," she says, referring to Golden Gate Fields. Jim Morgan, special counsel to the HCFA, recently attended a California Horse Racing Board meeting to request that board renew its policy of not allowing Golden Gate Fields to offer claiming races of $5,000 or below during the Humboldt County Fair. In 2014, CHRB threatened Golden Gate Fields with sanctions after it scheduled under $5,000 claiming races for the second week of the fair, effectively diverting horses away from Ferndale.
Olsen-Bugenig says one of the biggest draws for out-of-area racers is the atmosphere and small-town feel of Ferndale. The annual event is a great social occasion for those in the industry, she says, "kind of like a one-year reunion."
"We're smallest racing fair in the state — what you would call the way racing used to be," she says. "We have the crowds. We have the enthusiasm. We have the community support. It's hard for us to attract horses based on our location because people have to drive a long ways. It costs a lot of money to come up here to the racetrack. So, we're kind of up against it on that. But we just have a wonderful community here that loves us."
Linda Stansberry is a staff writer at The Enterprise. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.