02/21/2011 3:47AM

Dating Game


First of all, my profound apologies for dropping off the blog grid these last few weeks. No excuses, except for the fact that I was stunned into an uncharacteristic silence by overwhelming events. I'm better now.

But really, how could "Secretariat" be so completely ignored by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences? Sure, it was no "Seabiscuit," but to be shut out for nominations. I mean, "Tron" got a nomination. Dido got a nomination. Dido! Oscars schmoscars.

The political news was no better. The plight of Thoroughbred racing failed to get a sniff in either the State of the Union address or the federal budget proposals unveiled by the President and the House of Representatives. Don't they know about the casino companies who are growing weary of subsidizing the racing side of their operations? Didn't they hear that New York stuck a fork in the Off-Track Betting Corp.? And how could they ignore California's ham-handed increase in the takeout of multiple-horse wagers, and how a resulting players' boycott of California races rode the crest of a protest wave that reached as far as Cairo, Egypt, and Madison, Wisconsin?

Ah, California, my home sweet home. Did anyone catch the California Horse Racing Board's meeting the other day, during which the commissioners were asked to choose between bald-faced corporatism and open-handed charity? Okay, maybe it wasn't as simple as that, but contary conclusions are hard to draw.

At stake were the early fall dates of the 2011 racing calendar -- all of October and bits and pieces of September and November. On the one hand, there was Frank Stronach with all of his corporate clout and the giddy leverage that comes with the unbridled ability to spend other people's money. On the other, it was Sherwood Chillingworth, representing the Oak Tree Racing Association, which had been benevolent stewards of the early fall dates for 42 years (41 of them at Santa Anita). In the end, it came down to location location location. Stronach had Santa Anita Park to offer, but not for Oak Tree as a tenant, leaving Oak Tree with only Hollywood Park available as a home. The racing board, in a slap at Hollywood about as subtle as a pie in the face, decided that Santa Anita was the preferable choice, leaving Oak Tree out in the cold.

What did Oak Tree do disillusion Stronach? It's a mystery. The easier answer is what did Hollywood Park do to deserve the ill will of the racing board, to the extent that they would not grant Oak Tree a second meet there. For starters, Hollywood has trouble drawing crowds like Santa Anita's, though by historical standards neither can brag. However, because it answers to a development company that already razed one California racetrack (Bay Meadows) Hollywood Park management has been unable to commit to more than a year of racing at a time. This rankles the racing commissioners to no end, since the CHRB would like to issue a five-year calendar.

Short of that, it looks like the racing board will begin to revise the calendar piecemeal over the next few seasons. If awarding Santa Anita the early fall dates was any indication, the commissioners will be inclined to favor Santa Anita down the line when there are head-to-head challenges for date blocs. It is no secret that Stronach covets the spring dates of May and June traditionally operated by Hollywood Park. There is even reason to believe that sooner than later Del Mar will want to break out of its seven-week summer session, perhaps with a reinvigorated Oak Tree Racing Association along for the ride.

Given the shortage of starters in California races, the recent declines in handle, and the state's ongoing flirtation with synthetic surfaces, the racing calendar would not seem to be a priority. Calendars, however, promote stability, and stability is one thing California could use right now.