The Sonoma County Fair has a brand new inside turf rail, simulcast wagering from 10 other venues available in the grandstand, and a dirt track that is fairly pristine after sitting quiet during two years of COVID restrictions. It has everything horse racing fans could want for a full afternoon of thrilling competition — except the horses.
In a move no one associated with this annual summer tradition could recall happening before, fair officials were forced to cancel Thursday’s races because they couldn’t find enough entries to fill out the slate.
“I’ve been here since about 2013 or 2014, and it’s always been tough,” said Bob Moreno, who as Sonoma County Fair race secretary is responsible for scheduling races. “But it’s never been like this, ever.”
And it wasn’t a one-day oddity. Moreno had wanted eight races for Friday. But even after moving a couple of the canceled Thursday races to Friday’s calendar, he had to hustle to end up with seven.
Moreno recounted his work lining up competition for one race during this year’s fair — a 5/8-mile claiming race for fillies. He set the claiming price at $3,200, meaning anyone could buy any of the horses for that fee. One horse owner had to get at least $4,000, due to complicated claiming rules, and Moreno needed that filly so badly that he went around and convinced each of the other owners to raise the bar.
“I worked on that for three days to get six horses,” Moreno said. “You talk about scrambling, that’s a scramble.”
To some extent, our local fair is a victim of a temporary glitch that officials hope will be avoided next year. But the struggles go much deeper than bad timing, exemplifying a shortage of thoroughbreds that is plaguing racetracks everywhere.
Equibase Company, which supplies racing information to the Jockey Club, the Daily Racing Form and other sites habituated by all those who follow the sport, keeps track of cancellations each year. If you look at the full racing days canceled by Aug. 10 in the United States and Canada over the past few years, the number goes from three in 2018 to six in 2019 to seven in 2021. (The 2020 racing year was a wipeout, thanks to COVID.) There have already been 10 cancellations so far in 2022.
It’s hard to stage a race, tracks have learned, when you don’t have the horses.
In the mid-1980s, the number of thoroughbred foals born in the US hit a historic high of about 50,000 per year, said Ray Paulick, publisher of the Paulick Report, an independent industry news source. Now the births have fallen below 20,000 annually.
There aren’t as many horses in the pipeline, because fewer people are breeding them to race. With rising costs for land, feed and transportation, and with swelling opposition to a sport that euthanizes its athletes when they break their legs, the “sport of kings” doesn’t seem to strike younger generations as regal.
“And there has not been a similar reduction, I believe, in the number of races run,” Paulick said. “So it’s a supply-and-demand thing.”
The equation is especially bad in California, he said, where the thoroughbred foal count has dropped from approximately 3,600 to less than 1,500 in 20 years.
And when it comes to booking races, the northern half of the state is faring worse than the south.
“If you look at Northern California racing — whether it’s Golden Gate Field or the fair circuit, and you compare it to Del Mar and Santa Anita, there’s a big difference in purse money,” Paulick said. “But the difference in expenses for trainers and owners is not as big. If a horse is good enough, they’ll ship it down to Del Mar and skip Northern California.”
The purses are Del Mar, in San Diego County, can be three times the size of Santa Rosa’s, Moreno said.
Already facing an uphill battle, Moreno and his colleagues at the Sonoma County Fair ran into another obstacle in 2022. Most of the horses that race here tend to be trucked up from Golden Gate Fields. This year, the Berkeley track closed for renovations, forcing horse owners to take their animals to, for the most part, Pleasanton and Sacramento.
Golden Gate Fields has just reopened its stables. Many owners are currently in the process of moving back, or will be shortly. A side trip to Santa Rosa became complicated and disruptive.