05/20/2010 11:42AM

High Noon-ish


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?