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Safety Foremost in California Racing Decision

California racing commissioners are convinced that engineered surfaces are much safer for horses and riders than traditional dirt tracks so by a 4-2 vote on March 22, 20078, they denied a request by Bay Meadows for a waiver from the requirement for the installation of synthetic surfaces at the major Thoroughbred racetracks in California by the end of this year. The California Horse Racing Board adopted a regulation last May stating that effective January 1, 2008, "No racing association that operates four weeks of continuous Thoroughbred racing in a calendar year shall be licensed to conduct a horse racing meeting at a facility that has not installed a polymer synthetic type racing surface."

Hollywood Park installed a synthetic surface over the summer. There were no fatalities on the Cushion Track during the Hollywood Park fall meet. And there have been no fatalities relating to the surface among the horses training in Inglewood so far this year. Del Mar is in the process of installing Polytrack right now, and Golden Gate Fields and Santa Anita have plans to install synthetic surfaces this summer.

The Bay Meadows Land Company, which owns the racetrack, is in the process of obtaining building permits for the commercial and residential development of the valuable San Mateo property. Indications are the entitlement process could take three more years.

"There is no way it makes economic sense at this point in time for Bay Meadows to put in a synthetic track," said Jack Liebau, president of Bay Meadows, citing the estimated $8 million cost. "Really, the choice comes down to whether we close on December 31, 2007, or we donít."

Several labor representatives and trainers who do not want Bay Meadow to close voiced their support for the waiver request. But the organization that represents all trainers in the state asked the Board to stand firm and deny the waiver. "Our Board of Directors believes that Bay Meadows should be forced to put in a synthetic surface," said Ed Halpern, executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers (CTT).

Tom Bachman, representing the Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC), said his Board of Directors also opposed the waiver request. He encouraged the Bay Meadows Land Company to "step forward" and demonstrate its support for horse racing by installing the required surface. After listening to the lengthy and often emotional testimony, faced with a difficult decision, each racing commissioner explained his or her reasoning for the impending vote.

"We already compromised by exempting tracks that run less than four weeks of Thoroughbred racing, and thatís as far as I am prepared to go," said Commissioner Marie Moretti. She said she could not in good conscience trade off the legitimate economic needs of people at the expense of putting the lives of jockeys and horses at risk, when we know such risks are real.

Commissioner Jerry Moss said, "Prioritizing the safety of horses is the Boardís goal, and granting this exemption would fly in the face of that goal. We have to move on. I have nothing but optimism for the future of racing in Northern California. For these reasons, I vote not to grant a waiver."

Vice Chairman John Harris said the decision was relatively easy for him: "I feel California racing is better off with Bay Meadows operating than without Bay Meadows operating. I think itís a tragedy if we donít give them the waiver."

Commissioner John Andreini agreed with Harris, indicating his concern for the owners, trainers, and workers at Bay Meadows. "To shut them down would be a tragedy. The waiver should be granted in the interests of horse racing."

Commissioner John Amerman said denying the waiver would be in the best interests of horse racing. He explained, "The issue is whether Bay Meadows will put up the money to invest in a synthetic surface that we know is in the best interest of horses. We are being told they wonít do it. I am against granting the waiver."

Chairman Richard B. Shapiro tried to convince Bay Meadows to install the engineered surface. He suggested to Liebau that if and when Bay Meadows eventually closes, the surface materials of the synthetic surface could be resold to another racetrack, allowing the owners of Bay Meadows to recoup up to 50 percent of the cost of installation. Furthermore, he pointed out that additional funds are available through a new state law (SB 1805-Senator Dean Florez) authorizing reimbursement for a portion of the cost of the new surfaces. However, Liebau said this was not an option he could accept.

"We are not the ones deciding to end racing at Bay Meadows," said Chairman Shapiro. "We have an industry that needs to move forward. Our Strategic Planning Committee has been addressing the issue of alternatives for racing and training should Bay Meadows ever close. There are solutions. Itís not going to be easy. We all have to work hard to figure it out. Iím in favor of denying the waiver."

Chairman Shapiro and Commissioners Moretti, Moss, and Amerman voted against the waiver, while Vice Chairman Harris and Commissioner Andreini voted in support of the waiver.

Courtesy: The HorseTV Channel News, http://www.horsetv.com


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