Horseracing at the 2023 Humboldt County Fair will once again overlap with races at Golden Gate Fields for the second week of the fair after four out of five California Horse Racing Board commissioners voted to keep the status quo. Jim Morgan, special counsel to the Humboldt County Fair, and others consider the competition for an ever-shrinking number of California horses, as well as the host status given to Golden Gate Fields on the second weekend of racing, to be a threat to racing's future in Humboldt and — depending on who you ask — to the future of the fair itself.
The lone nay vote, CHRB Vice Chair Oscar Gonzales, visited Ferndale for a town hall March 8, told the board Humboldt was "definitely a community that knows their horse racing." He referred to the Humboldt County Fair as a "local institution" that "many in the community rally around" and encouraged commissioners to consider Ferndale and rural California as places to encourage horse ownership and a renewed enthusiasm for the sport. He referred back to the Jan. 19 CHRB meeting's debate over the board's responsibility to horseracing professionals versus its responsibility to the wider state population.
"What we have to do is to strike a balance between urban and rural," Gonzales said. "California remains a highly rural area. Its residents, its workers, send their sons and daughters to fight wars. No other area of the country other than rural areas defend this nation. The small business owners are looking for opportunities. And I believe that there's not a better area of California to make the investment."
He said it would be a "small sacrifice" for the Stronach Group, the private company that owns Golden Gate Fields, to allow Humboldt to have the second week of racing to itself.
Morgan struck a similar tone, saying: "The Humboldt County Fair is owned by Humboldt County as a public entity. They've supported live racing for 126 years, and it is in the public interest of that county to maintain their status as a live horse racing event. And given the economic realities that you're all very much aware of, that can only be done by allowing them to race without overlap."
The economic realities referenced by Morgan remain opaque. While the HCFA does not yet have a definitive financial report for 2022 (the books are still under review by a third-party accounting firm after allegations of embezzlement by the fair's former bookkeeper), it does appear to have turned a profit on horseracing that year despite the second week's overlap.
David Duggan, general manager of Golden Gate Fields, spoke after Morgan and said the ongoing feud for the second week, which is an almost annual occurrence, is "frightfully repetitive." He said, "Realistically, this is all about survival of the fittest. The California Horse Racing Board is a horse racing board. I don't believe it should be influenced by tales of nostalgia or sentiment. This is the realities of scale throughout the United States and further afield. Businesses are looking at our models. Looking at what can be the right way to run a business. The right way to run horse racing is for Golden Gate Fields to run for those two weeks."
He added that in 2024 it would be "in the back of our minds" to expand racing throughout the summer, effectively putting Golden Gate Fields in competition with the entire fair racing circuit. "There's this notion that the summer goes to the fairs," he said. "It's always the same, but maybe it's time for a change."
Duggan also cited concerns for his employees, who would lose five days of work should Golden Gate Fields shut down in deference to the fair. He said Larry Swartzlander, executive director of the California Association of Racing Fairs, had offered to employ the workers at Humboldt but they did not want to. "I'm not going to tell you their response when I told them," said Duggan. "It was a profanity-laden tirade against Humboldt. Sorry, Jim, but they don't like it."
Duggan went on to say, "I don't know that some of the Humboldt people would know the difference between Northern Dancer and the Northern Lights," he said, referring to the famous Canadian Thoroughbred. Morgan later tagged in to say Northern Dancer — who died in 1990 — never raced at Golden Gate Fields.
After hearing from representatives with the Thoroughbred Owners of California and California Thoroughbred Trainers, both of which backed Duggan's stance, the floor returned to the commissioners. Gonzalez offered a compromise of "one year on, one year off" of overlap but failed to gain support.
The final deliberation was swift, with Commissioner Thomas Hudnut motioning for the second week of racing to again overlap with Golden Gate Fields. After a brief poll, the motion was called with four members of the board — Commissioner Wendy Mitchell was absent — voting in favor and Gonzales voting no.
After the vote, HCFA Board President Andy Titus said the board plans to revisit the subject in 2024. "We are disappointed with the CHRB's decision [but] all we can really do is regroup and focus on putting the best horse racing meet that we can for 2023," said Titus via email. "The board did say that they would revisit the possibility of us having an overlapped host status for our whole meet again in 2024, so our plan is to focus on that and make sure that we have a united front and we are all focused on the same goal."
Editor's note: In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that North Coast Journal Inc. has a contract with the Humboldt County Fair Association to promote this year's fair, as well as an upcoming event. The company's marketing department — which retains no editorial control — is fulfilling the contract.
Linda Stansberry (she/her) is a freelance writer and journalist who lives in Eureka.