03/02/2010 2:11PM

Frankly

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"I'm not threatening."

This is what Frank Stronach said, and I tried hard to believe it. But when a man of wealth and power makes demands, in so many words, and then mentions consequences if those demands are not met, "threatening" is usually one of the words that comes to mind, along with "duck," "cover" and "yikes!"

Now that the bankruptcy of his racing company is about to strip him of all but a few precious assets, Stronach seems grimly determined to make those remaining assets a success. In all cases, however, the climbs are uphill. In Florida, Gulfstream Park's fortunes appear to be irrevocably linked to a casino business that was mounted in an increasingly saturated gaming market and in a sprawling mall launched in an economy full of dread. In California, where there is no casino option available the racetracks as long as Native Americans control the dice, Stronach's strategy to maximize his Santa Anita and Golden Gate holdings seems to rely on economy of scale. He wants all the racing dates he can get, or else.

Stronach Stronach is finessing the "or else" part in a couple of cagey ways, based on a California racing community that is divided along two key lines. Among racetrack managements, it is Hollywood Park (aka Bay Meadows Land Co.) against the rest. While it awaits a more favorable real estate climate in which to develop the land, BMLC continues to get away with a barebones operation at Hollywood Park. Other tracks already covet the dates, but Hollywood holds the sword of its backstretch and training facilities over the game. In the meantime, owners and trainers have decided that the issue of racing surfaces is worth a civil war. And while they haven't gone as far as printing team T-shirts or issuing invitations to synthetic tea parties, there is a very real atmosphere of Hatfields and McCoys out there, with no one actively searching for compromising ground.

Stronach, who has gone head-to-head against some of the toughest business beasts in the automobile world, hopes to play the parallel conflicts to his advantage. He is challenging California's horse owners, trainers and breeders to get behind his push for deregulation--shorthand for going after Hollywood Park dates--while dangling the promise of a new dirt racetrack to replace the synthetic surface now in place at Santa Anita...if he can get that deregulation.

If he doesn't, what is the "or else" part of the equation? Santa Anita languishes, its operation funded only to a certain point? Physical improvements sidetracked? Pieces of the property hacked away and developed? Stronach would not say, only that there would be no new racetrack unless someone else wanted to pay for it. But he was not threatening.

How did California get to this point? You can track the time line backwards over the past decade and find any number of forks in the road taken by California's racing leaders. Yes, it would have been swell in 1999 if a partnership of California-based owners had been able to purchase Santa Anita from Meditrust, rather than an Austro-Canadian auto parts manufacturer with no experience in running a racetrack. Yes, the California Horse Racing Board should have looked a little harder at rubber-stamping the sale of Hollywood Park by Churchill Downs to a development company that was already tearing down pieces of Bay Meadows. And yes, the interests that promoted the installation of synthetic surfaces--representing horsemen, management and the California Horse Racing Board--should have given the technology a better test drive under Southern California's unique climactic conditions before a wholesale commitment to the technology.

That was all then. Here we are now, with Frank Stronach loudly touting "free enterprise" as the solution to all California's racing problems, because "free enterprise" is the American way. Of course, it was free enterprise that allowed Stronach to cast his sights southward from Ontario to purchase one of California's most treasured sports stadiums. It was free enterprise that gave a horse racing company like Churchill Downs a pass to carpetbag Hollywood Park and then flip the property to a land developer. And it was free enterprise that had the manufacturers of synthetic surfaces descending upon California like gulls at low tide, selling their wares to clients cornered by a regulatory mandate.

I happen to agree with Stronach that the California racing calendar is long overdue for a shake-up, especially in light of Hollywood Park's frustrating status as an ongoing physical asset. Good men and women have lain awake nights trying to figure this one out, though, and if the best solution is to spend the lobbying money get a green light from the legislature and then throw all the dates on a table, so be it. The last time the calendar underwent substantive revision was in 1981, when there was far more unity among the various racing factions. Back then, year-round racing and the concept of off-site betting looked like nothing but baking and delivering a bigger pie. Through legislation and regulation, California's racing interests were allowed to fulfill their deepest wish, which was to look just like New York racing, only better, with more sparkles and sunshine. Good times.

Stronach did not say how much money a track like Santa Anita needs to make before he considers it a success, or how many dates he would need to make the numbers work. Clearly, though, he is laser focused on more dates as the solution, with everything else to follow...or not. As for the alternatives, let's just say it did not occur to me to think Stronach was making a threat until he said he wasn't.

blackseabass More than 1 year ago
"I'm not threatening". Me thinks he doth protest to much.
blackseabass More than 1 year ago
Santa Anita should have its dates revoked and redistributed to fairplex, Hollywood and Del Mar until Stronach sells it or walks away . The city of Arcadia should prohibit it from being developed as anything other than a racetrack and issue no demolition permits under any circumstance. The state should declare it a historical monument in relation to it being used as an internment camp for Japanese Americans during WWII. Stronach wants to play hardball with the stupid Americans. A coalition of interested parties should be put together and really give him a financial working over making the property worthless as long as it remains in his hands. Racing is full of deep pockets with political influence that probably dislike him as much as the patrons of Florida, Maryland and California do. I'd rather see it go the way of Hialeah than give that guy another inch. Once he's gone the dates can be redistributed back to the new SA.
blackseabass More than 1 year ago
Reyen, you prefer the money that goes into state and county coffers from the fairs to go in the pockets of foriegn money launderers and Shiekhs. Nobody is forcing you to play the fairs, there are major track meets being conducted simultaneously with the fairs. I agree with Marty Wygod who advocates that all Califonia tracks should be operated by NPOs. I like the fairs, the variables seperate us men from you boys. Black Ruby was a heckuva lot more stout hearted than anything that set a hoof on the track at GG in decades. Now there was quality! Deregulation in any sector is the last thing that this country needs. Anyone blaming the economy for racings demise is making excuses for their lousy stewardship of the game. Millions for new palm trees in the empty parking lots was a real improvment to SA. The 1000 seat bar with the music blaring through the PA was just what the horseplayers wanted. Micro brew festivals and rock concerts in the infield are another thing prognosticators can't live without. The truth hurts but the fact that most of American racing has been hijacked by the two-headed magna/churchill monopoly that has total disregard for the people that pay the bills, the patrons is the problem.
Michael Cusortelli More than 1 year ago
California racing needs to go back to the days when there was only one commercial track running at a time. The only overlaps were in the summer with the fairs. Santa Anita could run in the winter, Hollywood Park (for as long as it's still around) in the spring, Del Mar in the summer and Golden Gate in the fall.
John More than 1 year ago
This blog entry is grossly misleading! You are absolutely foolish to think or say that anything "... is about to strip (Frank Stronach, aka "him") of all but a few precious assets". Please research the matter further. Maybe Belinda will loan him a vehicle, or bankroll a lemonade stand where he can work.
Curt A Vassallo More than 1 year ago
& here it was. I was thinking that the only logical solution 4 Ca., was returning to DIRT. OMG ! Boy, was I wrong. They've got "Plastic", every where U look...
Patrick From Duarte More than 1 year ago
Racing in CA is in serious trouble, Ignorant people talk about the surface being the reason, give me a break. I can understand a $2.00 better who cant pick his nose on the synthetic being bitter, but the surface is not even close to being the situation in CA. Not one breakdown at SA in the afternoon has not even been mentioned by the naysayers. Purses have to go up, and way up, simple as that or CA racing is doomed. How to do it is the challenge for CA racing. If it takes more than 3-5 years, major racing is in jeopardy in California.
Reyen More than 1 year ago
Stronach is neither the problem or the solution. The real problem is that horse racing is governed by the CA agricultural interests-that is the County Fairgrounds. Where else would the good weather racing dates be monopolized by the insane CA Fair circuit? As a NCal racing fan for 35 years, the idea of racing at the one full capability track (Golden Gate Fields)through the rainy season (no turf racing for 4 months)while giving the prime racing weather dates to the County Fairgrounds is insane.Conducting racing at six different 2 week sites has always been nonsensical--except to enrich the individual counties and to eliminate any competition from any other OTB structure. Try handicapping $4000 claimers in August that have PP lines at five (wildy variable) surfaces only maintained for six weeks a year, having shipped every two weeks in 90 degree weather, new feed/surrounding, etc. Any wonder the rest of America simulcasting avoids these meets (not to mention mule--yes MULE!!-and cheap quarter horse racing. Until (never) when this is corrected will there be any hope of quality true year round racing and open OTB structure to save NCal racing. Just my thoughts...
William R Baker More than 1 year ago
I have been a racing fan and handicapper for many years and follow all aspects of what happens in the racing industry. My initial impression when Mr Stronach began buying racetracks and announcing some of his bizarre ideas was the man is an egomaniacal lunatic. Now that I see where he has stepped my opinion of him has declined. Basically I see that Mr S has in a few short years done more to damage racing than anyone in history. I see and appreciate that some writers such as Andy Beyer take little shots at him and his seemingly destructive pathways, but generally I don't see anyone in the media that treat him like the joke he is. My focus is on California racing and when Mr S bought Santa Anita and began spewing out his ideas regarding his plans for 'the great race place' I was astonished and disturbed. One of his ideas was to destroy the downhill turf course. That course a beautiful place to race and the site of my personal favorite sprint race. Next his big promotion to build a track in Northern Cal. to replace the aging Bay Meadows and GGF was pretty much laid to waste by his abrasive manner and know it all attitude with locals near the site he chose. I know Mr S buys horses, breeds horses and races horses but what I have no doubt about is he doesn't know d--k about the racing business or have any appreciation or respect for the opinions of, those who have given of their time and efforts to build racing into the great sport it is. I strongly urge everyone associated with racing to think about how to eject this raging moron from the sport we love.
Paul More than 1 year ago
If horseracing is just gambling, then no one should care that a gambling location gets abused or torn down. Free enterprise will decide when an gambling hall is built and when it is no longer needed. But, for those of us who love horses, we see the big picture. Horse racing justifies equines and equine research. Without horseracing, the costs of private ownership of horses as pets would sky rocket and, let's face it, there would be very few horses around. We don't eat horses and they are not the ideal pet. A horse might be something you only see at a zoo. Horseracing is more than a business, at least to the horses. If you love horses, you should be wary of those who want to experiment with the game.