Louis Bland wins some, loses some. But he bets most of them.
The 79-year-old Modestan is a regular at the Turlock Turf Club, the off-track horse racing gambling facility. How regular? How many days a week does he play the ponies?
“All of them,” he said. “Not much else do to.”
Like others who frequent the Turf Club – nearly 60 on days when the California tracks are running, about a dozen on days such as Wednesday when they’re not – Bland studies the racing forms from tracks all over the country, placing his bets.
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But the players’ biggest worry these days isn’t whether their picks will win, place or show. They are more concerned about the place itself, meaning the Turf Club, and whether they’ll be able to keep going there to place their bets and socialize with the friends they’ve made over the years.
The club’s future is in jeopardy because the Stanislaus County Fair board of directors is losing money on it, CEO Chris Borovansky said. The club’s food vendor pulled out a couple of weeks ago. Borovansky said he’s working to find the club a new, profitable home where the players, most of them retired, can continue to bet the horses.
“I’m pretty sure we can do that,” he said. “Fresno and Monterey are the templates and have gotten permits (from the California Horse Racing Board). The horse racing board doesn’t want this (Turlock’s Turf Club) to go away.”
The popularity of horse racing is waning throughout the state, although a great and popular horse such as California Chrome certainly can rekindle interest, as Chrome did during his unsuccessful run for the Triple Crown a year ago. In 2013, the Turf Club drew 612 guests for the Kentucky Derby, 301 for the Preakness and 286 for the Belmont Stakes. But in 2014, California Chrome brought the bettors to the facility: 636 for the Derby, 520 for the Preakness and 993 for the Belmont.
Like so many other things in life, technology has helped and hurt horse racing. Helped because folks can bet on races virtually 24-7, through casino sportsbooks or online from their own homes. But like boxing, horse racing suffers from self-inflicted wounds. Off-track betting has made it difficult for the racetracks themselves to stay profitable.
Parimutuel betting at tracks became legal in the 1930s as a way of funding the state fair circuit. But since the mid-1980s, when off-track betting created closer-to-home opportunities for bettors, track attendance pretty much everywhere in the state has declined. Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park raced on Friday nights, bringing in good crowds and great money to the off-track sites but limiting the incentive to attend horse races in person except for major events.
State fair racing in places such as Stockton has been altered forever. The sport simply isn’t developing a generation of new fans, in theory because they aren’t likely to experience the excitement of live racing.
The Turlock Turf Club handled $6.5 million in betting last year and $184 million since 1993, according to Kathy Epps, money room supervisor for NorCal Offtrack Wagering Inc., which operates the betting machinery. The fair gets 2 percent of the take, using it to pay employees and utility bills.
A smaller facility, Borovansky said, would incur fewer costs and turn a regular profit. Meanwhile, Epps said her company wants to replace the betting tote machinery, and a crew from Maryland is coming to install new wiring. But where?
“If it’s going to be relocated,” she said, “do we want this done now?”
And if a new site for the Turf Club cannot be found, there is a chance it could be closed, Borovansky said, though not until after this year’s Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup races are completed, the latter in October. The nearest off-track betting facility is in Stockton.
Bettors in Turlock say the state and the fair board could do a better job of promoting the Turf Club. But the state eliminated all county fair funding a few years ago, leaving the fairs to fend for themselves financially, Borovansky said.
Thus, there’s no money for advertising the Turf Club. But Borovansky does assure them he is a horse racing fan and wants to keep it here.
“I grew up on the backstretch of the State Fair (in Sacramento),” Borovansky said. “I spent a lot of time back there. I love the sport. (But) it’s a volume business. For a smaller facility like ours, the volume just isn’t there.”