10/01/2001 11:00PM

Everybody wants Fairplex's dates


ARCADIA, Calif. - The prospect of Fairplex Park getting out of the racing business and leasing its dates to another track in Southern California is not quite as simple as it may seem, according to numerous racing officials and regulators.

Fairplex, on the site of the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona, completed its most recent race meeting on Sept. 24. Speculation that the meet would be the track's last increased when it was learned that Fairplex officials had discussed leasing its dates, perhaps as soon as next year, to Hollywood Park.

The switch would fill the gap in the Southern California racing calendar that falls between the closing of Del Mar in early September and Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting three weeks later with a major track meeting. Since Fairplex does not have a turf course, and has a main track that is only five furlongs in circumference, many horsemen, particularly those with Breeders' Cup-caliber runners, chose to leave the state and race this fall at Belmont Park in New York.

But while Hollywood Park, which is owned by Churchill Downs, may have gotten first run on the competition, the race is far from over.

Magna Entertainment, which owns Santa Anita Park, is locked in a nationwide battle with Churchill. Magna owns or operates meetings at 10 racetracks, including eight for Thoroughbreds. Churchill owns five Thoroughbred tracks and has a controlling interest in a sixth. It is difficult to imagine Magna and its chairman, Frank Stronach, meekly standing back and allowing Hollywood Park to acquire extra dates. Southern California and south Florida are the two major circuits where Churchill and Magna own tracks.

In addition, Fairplex has a long-term lease with Barretts, a highly successful sales company with a prominent 2-year-olds in training auction every spring that requires a track so the juveniles can have timed workouts.

And there is the not-insignificant supervision of the California Horse Racing Board, which must approve the licenses of any meet in the state and thus would have to give its blessing to a transfer of dates. The 2002 dates have already been allocated, with Fairplex scheduled to race from Sept. 13 to Sept. 29.

"The board would get two cracks at this thing," said Mike Marten, a board spokesman. "You would have to have the board find that something like this would be in the best interest of racing, and then the licensee would have to apply for the meet. Only the board can approve who gets those dates."

The leaders of both Santa Anita and Del Mar said Hollywood Park would not get them without a fight.

"Magna's position I'm sure is identical to Churchill's," said Jack Liebau, the president and chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Turf Club, which runs Santa Anita, and who oversees Magna's West Coast tracks, including Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields. "We are interested in increasing dates and revenue."

Joe Harper, the president and general manager of Del Mar, said if Hollywood gets some dates, Santa Anita and Del Mar will be asking for aid, too.

"The historical way of dealing with these things is that you don't get what you want unless the other guy gets something he wants," said Harper, who also is on Magna's board of directors. "Hollywood won't add dates without the objection of everybody."

Barretts - which in the past two years has had horses such as Came Home, Officer, Habibti, and Squirtle Squirt pass through its sales ring - has a lease with Fairplex through 2019, and the contract stipulates "access to a functioning racetrack during that time period," according to Jerry McMahon, president and general manager of Barretts.

Fairplex leases the property from Los Angeles County. The lease, for 56 years, was signed in 1988, and has a pair of five-year options at its conclusion, meaning Fairplex could manage the property through 2054, according to Wendy Talarico, the communications and public relations manager for Fairplex. The county gets money from the lease, as well as a percentage of revenue earned on the property. Talarico said Fairplex was "planning on racing next year" but admitted that Fairplex officials were evaluating their long-term interest in horse racing.

"The reason we are entertaining the thought of not having a race meet is that, because we are a business, we have to evaluate all areas of our business. We have a piece of property, and we have to figure out the best use for that real estate," Talarico said. "I'm not saying racing is not the best use of that real estate, but we have to examine all our options."

- additional reporting by Matt Hegarty