10/08/2010 3:42PM

California landscape a shifting one


It probably didn’t start with the Gold Rush of 1849, but it’s been going strong ever since. California, as a physical concept, is always in play. People just seem to want a piece of it, preferably coastal, with some kind of view, but the desert is okay, and then there’s the mountains, and here and there a stream. When can we open escrow?

The racetrack properties of California are not as sexy as Big Sur, Mendocino, or Coronado Island (which is actually an isthmus, a word I love to write but refuse to utter aloud). And after decades of relative ownership stasis, racetracks seem to be constantly in play. Over the past 20 years there have been eight different ownership groups between Santa Anita and Hollywood Park alone. Stable, as a concept, is merely a place to put a horse.

Frank Stronach, already having been the controlling owner of Santa Anita through two different companies, has exhibited again his never-ending desire to hold tight to that particular piece of California with his offer to basically buy out the portion of MI Developments he doesn’t already own. As with most of the Austro-Canadian’s moves, it is hard to tell if this would be a good thing or not for West Coast racing. If it happens, Stronach would no longer have a board of directors or shareholders in the picture. If it happens, any success, or its lesser variations, would fall to Stronach alone.

Over at Hollywood Park, currently hosting the Oak Tree Racing Association meet, there are extensive development plans (called “Hollywood Park Tomorrow”) languishing on the drawing board. Not since those plans were approved by the city of Inglewood, in July of 2009, has there been the slightest peep from Hollywood’s owners, Stockbridge Real Estate Funds, about tearing the place down.

This turned out to be very good news for Southern California horsemen, many of whom cling to the hope that Hollywood Park will stay in the horse racing business. The complete closure this fall of Santa Anita to install a new racing surface has turned Hollywood into a high-class refugee camp.

“I hear surprisingly few complaints about anything right now,” said trainer Jack Carava, who would normally be headquartered at Santa Anita. “I guess that’s what happens when you have only one choice.”

Good point. There is an understandable longing for those days of relative stability on the Southern California circuit. But that ship has sailed, and over the next several years, as Hollywood Park’s development takes clearer shape and Stronach’s goals for Santa Anita achieve some kind of focus, horsemen and fans will need to be braced for the shock of the new.

The latest idea dropped into the mix is the possible shake-up in the ownership of the property and facilities of the Del Mar Racetrack and Fairgrounds. It was revealed this week that the City of Del Mar – its city council representing some 4,500 residents – wants to buy the track and fairgrounds from the State of California, for a price of $120 million. That’s about $26,000 per Del Marino, and believe me, they could come up with the cash if they had to.

They won’t need to tap the citizenry, though, at least according to Richard Earnest, the mayor of Del Mar, who laid out the financing plan and warned that there is still a long way to go in the process. Legislation that would have facilitated the sale of a state property to a local municipality has been stalled for now in Sacramento, where the San Diego area State Senator Christine Kehoe is carrying the ball on the deal.

The fairgrounds is managed by a state agricultural association, which sees fit to offer such intriguing events as the American Muscle Showdown Car Show and the Crossroads of the West Gun Show, among many other attractions, in its exhibition halls. The agricultural association’s most popular attraction is the Del Mar Fair, which drew 1.3 million visitors last summer. But its most important tenant is the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and its seven weeks of summertime racing.

Joe Harper, CEO of the Thoroughbred Club, insisted the proposed sale was news to him, although he did point out that its roots could be found in the announcement last year by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that some significant California properties could be sold to help reduce the state’s financial crisis.

“All the parties that seem to be involved have said publicly they want racing to continue, and that would be our main concern,” Harper said.

Complicating the mixture is the fact that the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club is hoping to have its operating lease renewed next month by the state leasing commission. Its most recent lease expired last year, but a hold was put on the approval of a new lease by the same Senator Kehoe, who cited the uncertainties in the racing industry as justification for waiting “to get the best deal possible.” Just so she knows, none of those uncertainties have been resolved.

The current lease at Del Mar expires on Dec. 31, 2010, with month-to-month extensions available to the racetrack if the process continues to drag. Harper was asked, if the state ends up selling the property, if any lease agreement in place would be honored by the new owner, whether or not it is the City of Del Mar.

“That’s a good question,” Harper said. “I don’t know the answer to that. Right now I kind of feel like Mongo in ‘Blazing Saddles’ – ‘only pawn in game of life.’ ”

And just like that, California horse racing had its new operating slogan.