12/21/2011 3:52PM

Hovdey: Gifts of the Magi, California-style

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Concessions were made recently that could help the financially strapped Humboldt County Fair in Ferndale, Calif., survive.

Ho, ho, and ho. Look what the California Horse Racing Board pulled out of its big bag of goodies at last week’s meeting, held at jolly Hollywood Park:

◗ Horseplayers be joyful. Those trainers who attempt to sneak the testicles off unwieldy colts without letting the public know are officially on stern warning. In fact, they have been for quite some time, with a $1,000 fine awaiting those who commit such a clerical error without mitigating circumstances. In 2007, according to CHRB records, there were 44 instances of first-time geldings going unreported, at least at the entry stage. Over the last 19 months, according to those same records, the numbers have decreased to 21 unreported first-time geldings, as of Dec. 15, committed by 21 different trainers.

This would be known in law enforcement as a good trend. But when Es Luna popped at 27-1 at Hollywood Park on Dec. 20, just 30 minutes after the betting public was informed that he was competing for the first time as a gelding, the red lights of high dudgeon began to flash. Back to the Board it went, and now they are considering, a) increasing the fine, b) withholding purse money from the trainer, or c) allowing the horse to run as a non-wagering entity.

Options a) and b) are variations on an existing theme and c) is a rotten idea, since a horse does not know if he’s being bet on or not and his behavior can impact those who are part of the pools. This observer would be in favor of d) scratch the sonofagun, and let the trainer answer to his owner.

◗ Actions still have consequences, even in horse racing, which is why the good folks at Churchill Downs Inc. should not have been surprised when a big-shouldered jurisdiction like California viewed with disapproval CDI’s decision to end its direct contributions to the Jockeys’ Guild for use in health and welfare expenses.

Let’s set aside for a moment the thorny issue of a professional guild not being able to support itself through contributions of its own members. Someday the Guild needs to fly on its own. But through mismanagement and other self-inflicted wounds, the Jockeys’ Guild was in a hole deeper than deep, so it has been up to the “haves” of the racing industry to support the Guild’s restoration. This would be one of those valid choices of moral weight that people make every day. And as we know, corporations, like CDI, are people, too.

In response to Churchill’s funding halt of the Guild, the commissioners of the California Horse Racing Board took a deep breath and said, “Okay, that TwinSpires wagering platform of yours? Can’t play in California as long as this behavior persists.” It was worded more officially, but the message was clear.

So clear, in fact, that Churchill Downs and the Jockeys’ Guild opened talks. Just like that, the CHRB approved a four-month license last week for TwinSpires to do business in the state, with a board decision on the rest of 2012 to come by next April.

◗ Finally, those Christmas bells heard a-ringing up in the Victorian village of Ferndale sound a little sweeter because of a deal negotiated by the CHRB to essentially save, at least for 2012, Ferndale’s tenuous perch on a small piece of the sport.

To most of the California racing community, the two weeks of action at the Humboldt County Fair each August is more of an idea than a reality. Racing in the redwoods around a half-mile track, surrounded by local 4-H kids and their blue-ribbon farm critters, Ferndale is racing the way it was meant to be – as imagined by Faulkner or Steinbeck.

In 2010, with five dates free from overlap with another Northern California meet, Ferndale handled $10.2 million and was doing just fine. But then other tracks started doing their own numbers, and little Ferndale began to look more like an expensive indulgence than a viable part of the calendar. As a result, the 2011 Ferndale meet ended up overlapped with not only Golden Gate, but also the popular Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa, which is not exactly in Ferndale’s backyard, but close enough. The total handle fell to around $5 million.

The agreement, negotiated by CHRB chairman Keith Brackpool, was complicated, but then most things are these days when it comes to the parsing of precious racing resources. All but two of Ferndale’s racing days will overlap with programs at Golden Gate Fields, but Golden Gate has conceded four days to Ferndale during which the fair will serve as the Northern California “host” track when it comes to simulating revenue. In addition, there will be some sharing of simulcast revenues with Ferndale by both Del Mar and Golden Gate, along with some outright cash payments that will help make up for the disappearance of a supplemental purse fund that was cut from the state budget.

“The agreement gave us what we believe we need to keep Humboldt alive and moving forward,” said Stuart Titus, the Humboldt fair manager and Ferndale native. “Without this arrangement we would have been out of business by 2013.”

So there, and Merry Christmas.