Racing in California faces an uncertain future, based on stinging comments about the sport made by Gov. Gavin Newsom to the New York Times this week.
Newsom, a Democrat elected in a landslide last November, expressed his unhappiness with the spike in fatalities at Santa Anita earlier this year along with the regulatory oversight provided by the California Horse Racing Board.
“What happened last year was unacceptable, and all of the excuses be damned,” Newsom said at a meeting with reporters from the Times. “We own that going into the next season, and we're going to have to do something about it. I'll tell you, talk about a sport whose time is up unless they reform. That's horse racing. Incredible abuses to these precious animals and the willingness to just to spit these animals out and literally take their lives is a disgrace.”
Newsom took specific aim at the CHRB, saying he was “pulling away from those with direct conflicts and pulling out a more objective oversight capacity.”
Newsom apparently was referring to CHRB members who are horse owners and breeders or otherwise have a vested interest in the game.
However, to paraphrase Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt: Don't listen to what Newsom says, watch what he does.
Just before last week's CHRB meeting, Newsom appointed the politically connected Wendy Mitchell to the board. This is the same Wendy Mitchell who served for more than five years on the powerful California Coastal Commission – which makes land-use decisions for the state's 1,100 miles of coastland – while working as a consultant for a number of companies who did business in front of that commission.
In fact, Mitchell was found guilty in a 2018 San Diego Superior Court civil trial of violating state regulations relating to ex parte communications. Mitchell and four other members of the Coastal Commission were alleged to have had hundreds of private meetings, communications and even coaching sessions with development companies and others.
The judge in the case cited Mitchell with 22 violations and fined her $7,100. The state of California had to pay nearly a million dollars in attorney's fees to the plaintiffs in the case, the watchdog organization Spotlight on Coastal Corruption.
Laughably, before the lawsuit was filed, Mitchell wrote an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee about the need for greater transparency in government agencies.
By the time she was found guilty, Mitchell had resigned from the Coastal Commission after allegedly leading a coup to overthrow the group's executive director, who was said to be in disfavor with developers wanting to get construction projects approved.
Mitchell is chummy with developers and lobbyists. The Los Angeles Times reported that the website for her consulting business, which had several clients with business in front of the Coastal Commission, once had the tagline: “Strategy. Connections. Results.” The home page for that website no longer lists clients like Pacific Gas & Electric, Combined Properties or Carollo Engineers and simply has a link for people to contact Mitchell via email.
Before she moved to the private sector (where, among other things, she served as vice president of external affairs for Cadiz, the water company co-founded by Keith Brackpool, the former CHRB chairman and Stronach Group executive), Mitchell held key staff positions in the state Assembly and Senate.
So I found it a tad ironic when Mitchell appeared to lecture other CHRB members about ethics at her first meeting Sept. 19. “We need to understand the scrutiny and the optics,” Mitchell said.
Indeed. The optics of her appointment to a regulatory board to oversee horse racing are not good. People like Wendy Mitchell are part of the problem of government oversight, not the solution.
That's my view from the eighth pole.
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