02/18/2005 12:00AM

Charles right man behind the wheel

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Much to his chagrin, Ron Charles won't be in the stands at Santa Anita on Monday afternoon to watch his Irish mare Uraib take on a tough bunch in the $150,000 Buena Vista Handicap at a mile on the grass.

Chances are good, though, that Charles will be able to catch the race on Magna Entertainment Corporation's HRTV, since he will be on a business trip to Aurora, Ontario, deep in the Canadian belly of the Magna beast.

As executive director of MEC California, Charles deals relations between Magna's major West Coast holdings - Santa Anita and Golden Gate - as well as its corporate headquarters, which just happens to be located in a foreign country, more than 2,000 miles away from his office at Santa Anita Park.

For those still not accustomed to the idea that the fate of a California enterprise rests at such a geographical remove, you'd better get used to it. If anything, the corporate ownership of tracks is on the rise. There can be some comfort in the fact that at least, in Charles, MEC chairman Frank Stronach picked a true blue California guy whose background check hits all the right notes.

Charles is a native of Glendale, that most venerable of L.A. suburbs, who was schooled locally and played the horses as soon as he could read program numbers. His L.A.-based business success - primarily in printing, construction and health care staffing - has taken him to exotic corners of the globe. But his roots are still planted deep in California soil, along with a 25-year history as a Thoroughbred owner.

These days, the Charles stable numbers about 20 head, trained at Santa Anita by Sandy Shulman. Uraib, a daughter of Mark of Esteem bred and originally raced by Hamdan al Maktoum, was the product of an English buying spree in late 2003, costing Charles 13,000 pounds, or about $20,000. He got it back pretty quick.

"Clearly, I was willing to pay more for her," Charles said. "She had run second to an extremely nice colt over there named Royal Storm, going seven-eighths. But I always thought she would go a lot farther. In fact, we were very high on her the first time she ran here, at a mile and one-eighth, and she won at 40-1."

Charles exaggerates, but only slightly. Uraib's debut victory last March 28 came at odds of 39-1, and once again, he neglected to give this reporter the customary "it's a go" phone call.

"It's not that often that I'm even in the loop at 40-1," Charles said. "But we were that day. There was a lot of cheering in the box when she was three in front turning into the stretch."

Since that memorable day, Uraib has won two small stakes and placed in four other races, including the Brown Bess Handicap at Golden Gate Fields in her most recent start. In the Buena Vista, she could be facing such proven runners as Intercontinental, Katdogawn, Solar Echo, and Elusive Diva, which means Charles could get a big number once again.

Uraib's challenge, however, is child's play compared to the one taken on by her owner. Charles left his leadership role with the Thoroughbred Owners of California last fall and took the MEC position in hopes of invigorating the all but dormant promotion of California racing, while at the same time fostering a more industry-friendly image of Magna's ownership.

Charles inherited a Santa Anita marketing program focused primarily on the two headline days of the early meet - opening day and Sunshine Millions - at the expense of a broader product awareness campaign. He vows that efforts now will be directed at the promotion of the sport itself, rather than specific events and non-racing entertainment.

"You're going to see a lot more print, television, and radio advertising," Charles said. "We're going to try to get a little more creative with other wagering possibilities, things that put racing back in people's minds. How many people have been thinking about Santa Anita the last month? Not too many, I'm afraid."

Charles also is eager to build California's inventory, aiming for larger fields and more quality races. The goal is being attacked from several angles, including the hire of bloodstock agent Gayle Van Leer to promote the entire California circuit and recruit fresh stables from out of state.

In this regard, Charles himself took on an issue that has been a thorn in the side of the Santa Anita message for at least the last two years: The fact that Frank Stronach, owner of Horse of the Year Ghostzapper and winner of back-to-back Santa Anita Handicaps with Milwaukee Brew, does not race a string of his vast Thoroughbred holdings at his flagship California track.

"Frank and I had a long talk about it, about the message it sends to other horsemen," Charles said. "He agreed, and he told me that next year, of his 80 in training in Canada, he would bring the best 20 down here for the meet. So he has made that commitment to me, that he wants California to be in a leadership position."

With Charles in charge, there just might be a chance.