03/02/2010 3:11PM

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.