09/16/2009 12:00AM

After a life of sales, he's ready to buy

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Benoit & Associates
Richard's Kid upsets the Pacific Classic at Del Mar for owner Arnold Zetcher, part of a group that wants to buy Santa Anita from Magna.

Arnold Zetcher says he is retired, and after 45 years in the retail industry he has a right. But instead of grabbing a metal detector and heading for the nearest beach, or dusting off an old set of golf clubs, Zetcher managed to find a few other things to keep from going stale.

Like breeding a Grade 1 New York stakes winner.

Like winning one of California's biggest events.

Like buying California's most famous racetrack.

Zetcher and his wife, Ellen, have been in the racing business nearly a decade. They had a number of good years with their first trainer, Ron McAnally, and now one remarkable season with Bob Baffert, winning the Acorn Stakes at Belmont Park with Gabby's Golden Gal last June and the more recent Pacific Classic at Del Mar with Richard's Kid.

When Richard's Kid got up in the last 50 yards of the Pacific Classic to defeat the accomplished Einstein by a neck - on the Zetchers' 27th wedding anniversary, no less - he effectively upended the West Coast older division and tossed his name in the mix for the Breeders' Cup Classic.

"I started coming to Del Mar in 1978 as a fan, visiting friends in La Jolla, just sitting up in the far corner of the grandstand," said Zetcher, who was CEO of the New York-based Bonwit Teller at the time. "Each year my stay got a little longer because of the races, and when they started running the Pacific Classic, I never missed one. It's one of those races you never really expect to participate in, let alone win, which makes winning one just an unbelievable feeling. We're living a dream."

For those who like their big race results to resonate past the finish line, the Classic also provided a snapshot rife with ironic residue. Einstein, winner of the Santa Anita Handicap earlier this year, had been purchased on the eve of the Pacific Classic by Frank Stronach, whose Magna Entertainment Corp. is in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings. The most cherished of the MEC holdings is Santa Anita Park, and if Zetcher gets his way, Santa Anita soon will be owned by a group of like-minded California owners who want to run the track for the benefit of fellow horsemen.

Just because Santa Anita was taken off the formal auction list of MEC racetracks earlier this month does not mean it is no longer for sale. It is, and Zetcher's acquisition team, backed by the Thoroughbred Owners of California, is going full steam to assemble $100 million worth of investment capital in an effort to make a winning bid. There have been other groups mentioned as reportedly interested, but none has been as publicly aggressive as Zetcher and the TOC, who are positioning themselves as the California industry's best chance to save itself from extinction.

"California racing should not have to worry every two or three years whether or not this owner or that owner is going to lose interest in a track as important as Santa Anita," said Zetcher, who is joined on the acquisition team by Brian Boudreau, Pete Parrella, and Will de Burgh.

"We're trying to do it in a way that any profits from the venture don't go to individuals that take the money out of the industry," Zetcher went on. "Our models are entities like the Hong Kong Jockey Club, the Japan Racing Association, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. They focus their profits on horse racing."

This is not to say that investors would not reap some benefit. According to Zetcher, there would be earnings yardsticks that would allow investors not only to recoup their original plunge but actually make money on the deal. At the same time, there would not be the constant pressure applied by a corporate ownership required to satisfy shareholders first and foremost.

"No matter what kind of investors we have, no matter what kind of board we have, we will be in control of the racetrack," Zetcher said. "Santa Anita has a lot of property, and there are opportunities for development, but they can't be in conflict with the objectives of the racetrack."

On the face of it, anyone who would want to step up to acquire a racing enterprise on the scale of Santa Anita in the current climate would be ushered to a rubber room. Along with the keys to the place, new ownership would be handed a shrinking horse and horse investment population, a physically degenerated stable area, a huge debt to service, a complex and disadvantageous offtrack wagering system, and California's impulsive, patchwork transition to synthetic surfaces that has monopolized the conversation and subverted horsemen's morale.

"The issue of track surface has to be a priority," Zetcher said. "But anything done should be based on dispassionate research. We need to get back to talking about the racing, not the racing surface.

"We have numbers in our proposal for the barn area, for water treatment systems, for renovations to the grandstand," Zetcher added. "But we can't do our numbers based on what might happen - like slot machines, or increased racing dates. We have to be realistic."

The drama of Santa Anita's next ownership will continue to unfold over the coming weeks and months, even as the track and the Oak Tree Racing Association play host to the Breeders' Cup during the first week of November. Zetcher, who made his fortune selling attractive stuff to discerning customers, knows that few businesses prepare anyone for running the highly regulated three-ring circus called the racetrack. And yet . . .

"The one thing I've learned in retail that applies to horse racing is that it's still got to be about the customer," Zetcher said. "I think in horse racing right now that hasn't been on top of the list. You simply can't forget those people who come to the track. I was one of those guys, just sitting on a bench, doing my handicapping, and listening to what people wanted."