Story & photos by BOB DORAN
HORSE RACING HAS BEEN PART OF THE HUMBOLDT COUNTY FAIR in one form or another since the fair's inception in 1896," said Stuart Titus, Humboldt County Fair general manager [in photo below right]. "There was a different format back then of course. But -- with the exception of some years around the turn of the century when gambling was prohibited in the state -- there has always been racing as part of this fair.
"What differentiates modern horse racing from the olden days is the type of wagering that is allowed. Pari-mutuel wagering (where the take is split according to predetermined percentages) went into effect in California in 1933. It was an initiative adopted by the voters. When it took effect the California Horse Racing Board was created and with it came racing as we know it today."
How important are the races to the Humboldt County Fair?
"Very important," said Titus. "Our annual budget [for the fairgrounds] is about $1 million. Of that, 75-80 percent is generated during the 11 days in August when we hold the fair. My estimate would be that 60-65 percent of that is directly or indirectly related to racing."
About 80 percent of the money bet on a race, called the "handle," goes to pay off those bettors holding winning tickets. "The other 20 percent gets split up between various parties," said Titus. "The state gets some as license fees, we retain some as a commission, some goes to the purse."
The track is small, in fact at a half mile, it's the smallest in the state, and since Humboldt County doesn't have a lot of people, our crowds are smaller. Fortunately the track's revenues get a boost from the outside via satellite.
"We have our own racing and money bet by people who come to this fair," said Titus. "And our races are also satellited out statewide. Interestingly enough, of the total bet on Humboldt races, a full two-thirds is bet outside the county. We're very dependent on the satellite system in that regard."
With money bet on Humboldt races at other tracks the total take is "about $3 million over the 10 days," said Titus. "Out of that our commission is somewhere in the neighborhood of $150,000. We pay out about $280,000 in purses total."
A recent bill put forth by assembly person Virginia Strom-Martin and signed by Gov. Davis helped protect that revenue.
"Bay Meadows, where the San Mateo County Fair runs its races, is going to be liquidated someday," Titus explained. "There won't be a track there. What our bill did was preserve the existing language which provides us with certain economic privileges and advantages regardless of where San Mateo may run its dates in the future."
San Mateo is one of the tracks on the Northern California fair circuit that has seen trouble brewing lately. A number of factors have led to horse trainers leaving the state and the smaller tracks are often having a hard time filling their race cards. In response the California Horse Racing Board recently proposed reducing the number of race days for 2002.
"They are making adjustments elsewhere with other fairs to address what appears to be a problem statewide; that is a shortage of race horses. This year everybody was running scared because there were some trainers who left the state for their own reasons. Jerry Hollendorfer and a couple of others took their stables back east and did very well.
"One way to address the problem is to reduce the number of races run each year either by reducing the number of days that they allocate or by running fewer races each day. It's still up in the air. I don't think they'll make the decision until next month."
Difficulty filling the race card is nothing new in Humboldt County.
"We're always challenged to attract horses up here," Titus admitted. "We've always predicated our race meet on how many horses we're fortunate enough to get. Our purse money, the prize money we offer them, is less than anywhere else in California, but it's still better than they receive in other states like Oregon and Washington. And there's still no better racing overall than what you find here in California. There's still a lot of good trainers here."
With trouble on the fair circuit around the state, you'd think the smallest track, Humboldt's, would be in serious trouble this year. But for a combination of reasons that isn't the case.
"We're looking very very good," said Titus. "In fact we've already began discussions with the California Horse Racing Board about adding races to this year's program. It appears we'll be able to run more races than we have in 15 years. It looks as if it's going to be the best race meet in some time.
"We're pleasantly surprised. We receive stall applications on a preliminary basis as a way of knowing who's coming and how many stalls they need. We're at a record high right now. We've got stall aps for over 500 horses."
In part the increase is due to a windfall from the north.
"We're getting a lot of horses from Oregon and Washington this year, mostly because the racing that usually occurs at the Oregon State Fair in Salem will not be happening this year.
"Usually the horses go from Grant's Pass to Salem. This year they had nowhere to go, so even a week or more out we already have horses on the track from Oregon. It's put us in a pretty good position for this year. We'll treat them well and hope they come back next year."
Among the perks for trainers -- cash bonuses for showing up and to offset the cost of entering races. A fish fry and a golf tournament are scheduled for Tuesday, the one day during the fair when there are no races.
Ralph Shiflet [in photo at left] is among those who came down from Oregon. The trainer from Salem brought two of his horses down and on a foggy morning a week before fair time. He has them on a device called a hot walker.
"I normally race the Oregon circuit, but they can't decide what they're going to do up there. I race all over up there, and everybody said my horses would do well down here in Ferndale."
Shiflet said this is his first time racing in California, "and after here I'm going to Sacramento, to the State Fair. I brought down two thoroughbreds; Aldebaran Dancer is the bay and Little Fette [with Shiflet in photo at left, and in photo below right] is the other. I'll enter both of them on the 9th, that's the first day of racing. Then I'll probably wait a day then enter them again and maybe again on a third day. It all depends on how they come back, if they come back sore. It all depends on how the horse feels."
He also owns a quarterhorse but left it back in Salem since there were only three races for quarterhorses on the bill this year.
"And they throw in mules and Arabians here and there. Horse people don't consider an Arabian or a mule to be a horse -- but they can run."
Shiflet, who has earned his living as a trainer for the last six years, trains his own horses. They didn't cost him very much. He paid $1,000 for each one.
"Fairs like this that just last nine or 10 days mostly bring horses like mine. The two barns over there are the Quillan's horses. They live in Washington and run the same circuit as me. I'm always running against them. They've got 40 head; they've got a lot."
How much does he know about his horses? "Plenty. You can tell a lot from the twinkle in their eye. If they're bright and shiny, if their ears are perked up like these guys, they're ready to go out on the track.
"I know when they've got a pain. Every morning before I take `em out of the stall I run my hands down their knees, down their ankles. The best thing is for them to be cold, that's what you want, nice and cold. If there's any heat you know something's going on inside."
Both horses are 5 years old, "just coming into their prime," Shiflet said. "Dancer is Washington-bred. All I know is his father came from Ireland and he was bred by a sheik, an Arab, Abdul something. Little Fette is California-bred. He's by Unpredictable and out of Beautiful Rose. ("By" is the sire, "out of" is the dame.)
Ray MacMullin [in photo, below left], a trainer from Grant's Pass walks up and joins the conversation.
All the Oregon trainers are familiar with the problems the Northern California fair circuit is facing. MacMullen blames a lot of the trouble on OSHA, California's Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He says that's what drove trainers out of state.
"Jerry Hollendorfer was perennially the leading trainer in Northern California," said MacMullen. "One thing that happened to him, he got fined by OSHA $1,500 because one of his grooms wasn't wearing socks under his shoes."
MacMullen ambles over to his stalls to introduce his small herd.
"I brought this maiden down here, a 3-year-old, Classy Mar Ket. She's out of a mare, Supermarket. That's where we got the name. Then there's Dr. Kitten. He's an old campaigner. He's raced here before a couple of times." [Dr. Kitten is with Ray in photo at left]
Nearby Charlotte Robertson and Juanita Jones sit on lawn chairs drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and talking with Bill Quillan while three horses circle nearby on a hot walker. Quillan introduces himself, and when asked if he's the one who owns 40 head, says, "My wife does," a remark that elicits laughter from all present.
"I've got 15 head down here," said Robertson. "Right now we have over 60 horses here who would normally be in Oregon. The reason we're here is they condemned the grandstand at Salem so they're not having horse races at the Oregon State Fair."
With the grandstand problem compounded by other troubles, including an allegedly unsympathetic fair director, the circuit in Oregon is even worse off than in Northern California.
"What happened in Oregon was they took the simulcast money and split it between the two major tracks, the dog track and Portland Meadows," said Robertson. "With the dogs getting the money there's no money left for the little fairs for the purses. The state fair was subletting (the racing) to a private company, but without the simulcast money, there's no purse money.
"Now we have a new fair manager in Salem and she's into show horses; she's not into race horses. She forgets that it's the backbone. It's a multimillion dollar industry.
"You don't just go grab a horse and enter them in a race. These horses have to have breeding behind them. They have to have a foundation before you can run them. These babies have to be galloped a 100 miles hundreds of times before you can even enter them."
Robertson works as trainer for four owners including Jones, who owns five of the horses in nearby stalls. Getting the horses fit to race is just one part of her job.
"The trainer is ultimately responsible for everything to do with the horse," she said. "I'm the one that decides when they need to gallop on the race track. I choose which races to put them in.
"The trainer saddles them in the paddock, then the state vet checks them after the race. They take blood and urine and if there's a foreign substance, the trainer's the one who's responsible, who gets fined or suspended. The trainer is responsible for everything."
The foreign substances she mentions range from morphine and performance-enhancers to an excess of vitamins or bute -- phenol butanol, -- an anti-inflammatory that is allowed, if used properly.
Robertson points out a horse that had suffered a minor injury from an accident in a horse trailer. "At the time the vet gave her some penicillin to keep her from getting infected. I couldn't enter her in any races for at least 30 days after the shot or the penicillin would show."
This is her first time in California as a trainer, but she is no stranger to California racing.
"I grew up on the race track. I worked as a groom, then I was an owner for years and years. Then my trainer retired and I started training. I've been running in Oregon because the insurance in California is for rich people, not poor people. You need a wheelbarrow full of money to race in California.
"One of the problems is the workman's comp insurance. They have a special deal they came up with for Ferndale --$750 just for 10 days. That's $75 a day and you might only run once or twice so it's a little spendy. Ordinarily you pay a deposit and so much per start to run the whole year in California.
"In Oregon you have a lot of mom-and-pop operations who do this for fun. It's a business, but you can't keep pouring more into a business than you get out of it. They're just forcing the little guy out of racing."
At the Bollmann Farm
THE DRIVEWAY LEADING TO THE BOLLMANN Farm in the Elk River Valley winds through pastures bordered by redwoods. Just past a pond circled with cattails is a stately barn. Inside Larry Bollmann is taking care of his evening chores.
Bollmann works 9 to 5 at his business in town, Bollmann's Taxidermy, but he starts and ends each day with the horses. For Larry and his wife, Suzanne, horses are clearly a passion and an obsession. Larry speaks of horse breeding as "an addiction."
His chores on a Wednesday evening in late July revolve around two young horses, yearlings he and Suzanne are preparing for the August Del Mar Sale next Monday, one of the most prestigious in the country.
We begin by talking about the "nick."
"The Jockey Club publishes a brood mare/sire index each year," said Bollmann. "There are roughly 36,000 foals born in the United States each year. They group brood mares based on the sire's ability to produce runners. You get a chance to look at different flow pattern. Some people like to do line breeding and inbreeding to take advantage of what's known as hybrid vigor. It's similar to what people do in gardens.
"Once you decide what you're looking for it's a matter of evaluating the information. And when you decide what bloodlines you want to follow, you make price comparisons. In California stud fees range from basically free on unproven stallions to the top stallion in the state, General Meeting, he stands for $40,000."
Bollmann took one of his brood mares to the stallion In Excess, "an Irish bred who made $1.7 million on the race track. He stands in Bonsell, Calif., just east of Oceanside. His stud fee is $25,000."
Bollmann drove down with his mare in foal. "The foal is born on the farm, then the mare is rebred as soon as possible, either in 15 days or 28 days." Then she comes home and if everything goes as planned gives birth 11 months and one week later.
"You can spend as much money as you want in this business. It's amazing. They just had the Keeneland July Sale (in Lexington, Ky.). It's actually the No. 1 sale in the world. They sold 129 animals. I think the top seller was $4 million. Of the 129 there were probably 25 or 30 that sold for a million bucks. The average sale was $780,000."
To get into the Keeneland or Del Mar sale you have to nominate your horse. The Bollmanns submitted two yearlings for Del Mar. Both were accepted. Animals are selected based on pedigree (bloodline) and confirmation, "an analysis of how well the animal is put together."
"Of the 660-plus animals nominated only 149 got in the sale. It's tough competition."
At this point in our conversation Larry's wife Suzanne arrives. "Did you get carrots?" he asks. "And oil," she replies. Both are for the horses. "He doesn't care about any other groceries," she adds as Larry launches into a detailed discussion of horse nutrition. The upshot is their horses eat very well.
"There are maybe 15 people in the local industry who are serious about this business," said Larry, "those willing to put in the effort -- and to pay rather high prices for good quality stock."
He says at this point he has spent about $30,000 on the In Excess filly, Neverenough Jewels, known on the farm as Soxx. "The industry usually works off of three times the stud fee at sale, so she needs to sell for between $60,000 and $100,000."
But he's not just looking for a return on his short-term investment. He is interested in the long-term reputation of his farm.
"I'm more interested in my horses getting into the hands of good trainers, those who will give them the time they need to develop, who won't push them or compromise their health.
"So many trainers are pushed so hard by their owners that they do things they wouldn't normally do -- take horses out and run them when maybe they need a break. But if you're paying a bit more, you're more careful about protecting your investment.
"It's the same with breeders. We have a vested interest in the animals and we do our utmost to be sure we deliver a good athlete to the sale. These fillies have never had an internal parasite. They've never been on steroids. They've had the top care they can get. The bottom line is you have to perform on the race track or you as a breeder will not be successful in pursuing your bloodline."
His goal is to raise horses that compete at the top level in what are called non-restricted races.
"You go through what they call the claiming ranks. This is what you'll see at Ferndale. You'll see horses that for one reason or another are not able to compete at the higher level race tracks -- Santa Anita, Golden Gate Fields, Bay Meadows.
"The horses that run at Ferndale have been sifted down to a level dictated by the size of the purses they run for. The top purse at Ferndale is going to be around $10,000. I don't believe there are any purses that low at any of the majors, but those at Ferndale will be very competitive for those purses.
"Even though it's a small track, that doesn't mean it isn't a lot of fun. That's a very important part of racing -- the enjoyment. The people who bet on the horse, that's a form of entertainment and there's a price on that. If they lose a hundred bucks, that's what they were willing to lose. It doesn't matter if they use a sophisticated analysis or the color of the horse's feet, they have fun doing it and that's what it's all about."
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