05/20/2010 11:42AM

High Noon-ish

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The rhetorical guns should be blazing Thursday at Golden Gate Fields, where the California Horse Racing Board's monthly meeting agenda will include a brisk question and answer session with Dennis Mills, the vice-chairman and CEO of Magna International Developments, the new owner of, among other entities, Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields, tracks under the direct purview of the CHRB.

OK Mills will be representing his boss, MID chairman Frank Stronach. Stronach has promised to appear before the racing board sometime in June to unveil his plan for a new California racing calendar, presumably highlighted by a much longer stretch of dates for Santa Anita Park. But that's for June. For today, Mills will need to deal with MID's opening salvo in its new approach to the calendar, which was to terminate Santa Anita's lease agreement with the Oak Tree Racing Association, host of the two most recent Breeders' Cup championships.

The CHRB has been on record for some time in favor of an orderly reimagination of the California calendar. The commissioners have deferred to the various ownerships to come to them with a unified approach. So far this has not happened. (I will pause for the reader to catch his or her breath.) Instead, any reshaping of the calendar has been a reaction to externals, imposed either by corporate development plans, such as the demolition of Bay Meadows, or economic pressures and horse population, which has resulted in fewer racing days at Del Mar, Golden Gate and Hollywood Park.

Whether or not MID has a viable plan to present, Stronach and Mills did themselves no favors by appearing to put the screws to Oak Tree. The Oak Tree Racing Association has been the Switzerland of the California racing scene through its four decades of operation, an island of relative peace and as neutral as possible, even while renting the facility of a big-shouldered landlord like Santa Anita. MID presented Oak Tree with revised contract demands that would, as one Oak Tree official described, "ask for our first born."

This may be the way MID does business. If so, California's racing constituencies had better buckle up and get ready for a rough ride. Both Del Mar and Hollywood Park managements offered safe haven for the Oak Tree meet, but each has drawbacks. Del Mar is a three-hour drive on weekends from L.A., and an autumn meet there would require fundamental changes in the lifestyles of the participants. Hollywood Park, owned by the same people the leveled Bay Meadows, will run through 2011 at least but probably not beyond 2013, leaving an Oak Tree meet orphaned once again.

For the past year, the monthly racing board meetings have been subjected to a report on the progress of the Magna Entertainment Corp. bankruptcy and its effects on the stability and operation of its Golden Gate and Santa Anita holdings. Of particular concern was ATW money owed by Magna tracks to the California's off-track wagering companies -- money that, according to MEC's spokesman, was not available because of the bankruptcy. At no time did the commissioners hear anything they liked.

With Stronach still at the top, no one is pretending that MID is substantively different than MEC. So, if nothing else, Thursday's CHRB meeting will give commissioners a chance to exercise a muscle they've long neglected to flex. The racing board's biggest weapon is the assignment of racing dates. If the commissioners want to, they can simply pass a resolution in support of Oak Tree running its traditional dates wherever the heck they want to run those dates. If the Canadian-based MID wants to be a cooperative California business partner, they will find a way to smoothe feathers and keep the valuable Oak Tree franchise in its portfolio.

In the meantime, take a look at the press release issued by MID after the news about the Oak Tree contract hit the streets -- http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/mi-developments-announces-intention-to-seek-solutions-for-a-prosperous-and-successful-california-horse-racing-industry-94171529.html. The top half comes off as a tap dance of reassurance and hurt feelings, pretty typical corporate stuff. It is the bottom portion of the release, however, tagged "About MID," that should be held close to the heart as the MID era of racing unfolds, in Florida and Maryland as well as California. It reads:

"MID is a real estate operating company engaged primarily in the acquisition, development, construction, leasing, management and ownership of a predominantly industrial rental portfolio leased primarily to Magna International Inc. and its automotive operating units in North America and Europe. MID also acquires land that it intends to develop for mixed-use and residential projects."

Why, oh why, would such a company want to own a racetrack? 

JT More than 1 year ago
Jay, I just reda that beautiful Belmont article. Now my teary eyes and smeared mascara make everyone think I just broke up with a boyfriend. Please tell the "lady of the house" that her Belmont win was one of the highlights of my years of being a racing fan. She wasn't the only one happy that day....she made the whole world smile with that amazing win. Take good care of her for us all, she really is an American racing treasure.
hialeah More than 1 year ago
This is an old thread, but to answer: What was Frank Stronach thinking? Profits. He put profits before people and essentially eliminated the 2 buck bettor from all his tracks. In his visionary wisdom he took older, established tracks that needed some fixin' up and tore them down to re-establish Upscale Meccas that the public, rather than spending money at, has ignored. Hence, the bankruptcies. Yes, plural. And I believe he had a stake in all the destruction and construction which always is a cash generating cow. So he and his companies were swimming in cash. Sad, but accurate. Should have been building swimming pools, I suppose.
Michael Costello More than 1 year ago
The beauty of the blog is how blanket statements such as "Did the staff have to assume an arrogant attitude so as to turn off so many vacationers and horseman alike?" can be stated with no evidence whatsoever.
stable girl More than 1 year ago
Jay, I LOVED the Belmont story. Mommy should indeed look so happy. Long live the race that separates the wheat from the chaff.
race More than 1 year ago
Tom D. / Hialeah / Yunipi / and Hard Spun, First of all we all love racing. From what I gather from the post none of us are in our 20's or 30's. Past memories are hard to forget, when Horse Racing was the only game in town. So now what do we do? First of all the downsizing of tracks to eliminate the Caverns of empty seats that exist now, needs to be thought out. Gulfstream broke my heart when Frank blew it up. The mistakes made at Gulfstream are too long and boring to mention, but the idea could have been a good one to eliminate the empty cavern of seats that exist at most tracks. Simulcasting has brought even more money into the Sport, but has not helped--no one is on the same page from State to State.What I do not understand, and please Jay step in here and educate me, if Frank is this business man as described for Commercial endeavors, what is he doing making everything upside down in everything he owns with regard to Tracks, but still keeps growing His Breeding operation? I mean is he bi-polar? Doesn't make sense to screw up Race Tracks, when he needs them for his Horses!
Jay Hovdey More than 1 year ago
FaninHonolulu -- Mr. Stronach is 77. How are the waves at Sunset?
Hard Spun More than 1 year ago
Jay, you're a journalist. How do you manage to write the above without looking at exactly what Santa Anita asked for from Oak Tree and why? And whether what they asked for was reasonable? If I owned Santa Anita, and Oak Tree was possibly entering into a long-term contract with the BC to host the event at my track, I'd definitely want a raise in rents (or percentage of profits). Oak Tree says they can't afford it? How do you report that as an accurate assessment - have you looked at their books, have you looked at the deal they cut with the BC, have you considered that they could cut a different deal with the BC which allows them to pay Santa Anita more? Many people also wanted to villify Churchill Downs because they insist on making a profit off hosting the BC, as they should. That is what is necessary to run a financially viable business, and that is what Stronach is doing and what he should be doing. I realize it's the in thing to tar and feather Stronach at every turn, but I don't see that he did anything wrong here - instead, he did what a competent business man looking after his track/company should've done. Try being fair.
FaninHonolulu More than 1 year ago
How old is Frank?
GP More than 1 year ago
WOW yuwpi! I second hialeah excellent posts. Racing is a wonderful sport. The best actually. When you see a healthy,vibrant (non-stimulized) animal doing what it loves to do-RUN!!! It's a sublime experience to take in. I'm going to take my children to the track on a Saturday afternoon and watch the joy on their faces when they see the horses charge down the stretch.
george quinn More than 1 year ago
Hey Jay, I see one of the Hollywood Park Pick 3's on Sturday payed 5 bucks. With the pick 6 coming back 643.00 chalky day or California racing? George in Tampa P,S The TVG boys must have had a ball they love 1-5