07/12/2010 10:34AM

Man With the Plan

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As ordered by the CHRB, MI Developments has delivered a plan for the operation of its California holdings for consideration at the July 22 board meeting at Del Mar. The substance of the package remains confidential, but the reason for its submission could not be more public. Essentially, the racing board wants to know why established rules and regulations should be suspended to allow MID to operate both Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields, as well as the XpressBet wagering platform.

Raising the question at all seems like a bit of a jolt, since the waiver was granted in the very recent past. Magna Entertainment Corp, MID's predecessor, bought Santa Anita in 1999, then Golden Gate, and developed XpressBet. The Bay Meadows Land Co., a real estate group, owned and operated Bay Meadows when it purchased Hollywood Park. Clearly, the racing board has been predisposed to grant such multiple licenses.

Whether or not that is a good thing is now in question by the current CHRB. The yanking of the Oak Tree Racing Association lease by MID, just weeks after their official takeover of Santa Anita, was a traumatic jolt that inspired some commissioners to search their arsenal for punative action. The fact that MID chairman Frank Stronach backed down and granted Oak Tree a one-year lease agreement for 2010 may have mitigated the board's displeasure. Maybe. The substance of the MID plan submitted for consideration will go a long way toward dictating the mood of the room at Del Mar on July 22.

If Stronach comes clean and is completely honest about his hopes and dreams for a greater Santa Anita meet, he would be proposing that the track operates for most of the year, three days a week. He would argue that Santa Anita at the very least deserves a crack at the dates now commanded by Hollywood Park. He could point out that Hollywood Park's inability to generate any kind of on-track business should be held against them, and that someone else should be given a chance to market the sport effectively.

And he would have a point. The numbers, if accurate, are beyond depressing. Last Friday night, a reported 8,906 showed up at Hollywood Park for an eight-race card that ended with a concert by The Wailers. The on-track handle barely topped $800,000. On Saturday, the Hollywood Gold Cup/Triple Bend program drew a reported gate of 6,195. At least they bet a million more than their Friday night counterparts, who were otherwise occupied with trying to figure out who shot the sheriff, and what's that delightful smell?

If the California racing industry is willing to let Hollywood Park continue to downsize the public's acceptance of the sport, it will get exactly what it deserves -- complete marginalization. Stronach and MID could come out blazing with a comprehensive plan to reimagine the entire racing calendar to everyone's advantage. They could step up with a commitment to a redistribution of the takeout that would reward the people actually putting on the show. They could promise a vigorous and well-funded marketing campaign to reintroduce horse racing to a lost generation of fans.

Or, Stronach could reiterate his desire to "sit down" and talk about vague notions he might have of a racing world he sees in his own mind. Sit-downs are fine, and it's smart to aim before you fire, but at some point the leadership class needs to clear the table of petty debris and cut to the heart of the matter. Otherwise, you have what Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, special envoy to Iraq and Afghanistan, described in a New Yorker interview last year:   

"People sit in a room, they don't air their real differences, a false and sloppy concensus papers over those underlying differences, and they go back to their offices and continue to work at cross purposes, even actively undermining each other."

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For all the hopes and delerious speculation, it has become clear that both Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra are returning to their default settings for their midsummer appearances -- the filly at Monmouth Park for the Lady's Secret on July 24 and the mare at Del Mar for the Clement Hirsch two weeks later, on Aug. 7.

In the broadest sense, we should consider ourselves lucky they're showing up at all. Modern racing is more an exercise in lowered expectations than aspirations to greatness. There seem to be ever more reasons not to run. Quality Road, arguably the best male horse in the land, is sighted about as often as the dodo. And when they do run...well, a certain trainer out West was complaining about his horse carrying 123 pounds in a stakes race the other day, when on the same program a maiden won at 9 furlongs giving away eight pounds to the runner-up, 124-116, and $8,000 claimers were carrying 124 and 122. Gimme a break.

Hats off to Monmouth Park, though, for appropriating the Lady's Secret brand for their fancy new race. Recall that the name was foolishly abandoned by the Oak Tree Racing Association in favor of that new flavor, Zenyatta (although New Jersey has a legitimate claim, since Lady's Secret did romp in the 1986 Molly Pitcher), and now Zenyatta faces the embarrassing possibility of running in the Zenyatta Stakes during the Oak Tree meet, in her final prep for the Breeders' Cup Classic. Talk about courting bad karma.

Rachel Alexandra will be training for her Monmouth race at Saratoga, which is a touchy situation, given the highly competitive atmosphere between the two meets this summer. You can hardly blame NYRA president Charlie Hayward for blasting owner Jess Jackson for not staying at the spa to run in the Ruffian, referring to the decision as a "shocking act of disloyalty" and a "shameful display of selfishness and betrayal by one of our very own."

No wait a minute. That was Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert venting after losing the bidding war for LeBron James. My bad. Hayward was exceedingly diplomatic, regretting the fact that Rachel Alexandra would be running down the road but holding out the hope that she might still make a New York appearance before the year is through.