03/15/2005 1:00AM

Churchill stays mum on Hollywood's fate


California racing officials asked Churchill Downs Inc. to explain its long-term plans for Hollywood Park after widespread speculation among industry officials last week that Churchill was nearing a deal to sell the racetrack to developers.

Churchill officials have cited company policy in declining to comment on the speculation, which has occurred sporadically over the past several years. Hollywood Park, which Churchill bought in 1999 for $140 million in cash, is situated on 240 acres of land in Inglewood, a neighborhood convenient to beaches, Beverly Hills, and Los Angeles International Airport.

The Thoroughbred Owners of California invited Churchill officials to a board meeting last Thursday to address the issue, but Rick Baedeker, the president of Hollywood Park, declined to comment on the company's plans for the track, according to Drew Couto, the president of the TOC. Baedeker did not return a phone call for comment.

"These are things we've been hearing year after year, and I think everyone understands that Churchill is not going to be at Hollywood much longer," Couto said. "Depending on who you talk to, Hollywood is worth anywhere from $250 million to $300 million, and that's a lot of pressure on a publicly traded company."

Churchill owns seven racetracks, including its flagship track in Louisville, Ky., Arlington Park outside Chicago, Calder Race Course in Florida, Fair Grounds in New Orleans, Ellis Park in western Kentucky, and Hoosier Park in Indiana. While profitable, the company has been largely unsuccessful in its attempts to add slot machines at its tracks, to the chagrin of shareholders who want to see the company capitalize on expanded gambling.

California racing has been beset by problems over the past several years, including short fields, spiraling workers' compensation costs, static handle growth, and a recent series of positive tests for illegal alkalizing agents. In addition, the state's racetracks and card rooms lost a humbling battle at the polls last year in an attempt to get approval for slot machines.

Several racing officials said that if Churchill were to sell Hollywood, the company might seek to run a race meet under Hollywood's dates at either Santa Anita Park or Los Alamitos Park. Hollywood will run two meets this year, from April 22 to July 17 and from Nov. 9 to Dec. 9.

Santa Anita is owned by Magna Entertainment Corp., the country's largest racetrack operator and also a publicly traded company. Los Alamitos, which runs a mixed meet year-round, is privately owned by Ed Allred.

A Magna official said Monday night that Churchill has not approached the company about running a meet at Santa Anita. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Magna officials had asked Churchill during meetings on Monday whether Churchill planned to sell Hollywood Park and got no response.

At Los Alamitos, which is in the southern Los Angeles metropolitan area, Churchill would likely need to pay for extensive racetrack improvements to attract Southern California Thoroughbred horsemen. The track has only a five-eighths-mile dirt course, although the property does have stables for 1,400 horses.

Allred did not return phone calls on Monday and Tuesday.

Couto said that should Churchill sell Hollywood, Southern California horsemen would have "plenty of options," including, perhaps, the construction of a new track east of the city, funded by owners. Couto said that year-round racing in Southern California would not be threatened if Hollywood Park were no longer part of the racing landscape.

"Obviously, if a racetrack decides they are not going to play anymore in Southern California, we'll realign the racing calendar," Couto said. "But we'll still have year-round racing. We'll have a calendar that maximizes our strengths and minimizes our weaknesses."

The Southern California racing year begins on Dec. 26 at Santa Anita and moves to Hollywood in April. Del Mar Thoroughbred Club north of San Diego runs a six-week late summer meet, and then racing moves to Fairplex Park in the Los Angeles area for three weeks. The Oak Tree Racing Association runs a five-week meet at Santa Anita next, before racing moves to Hollywood for the remaining month of the year.