06/27/2002 11:00PM

Fairplex just part of larger issue


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Frank Stronach has lobbied long and hard for government to remove itself from the regulation of parimutuel horse racing.

He decries the restrictions placed upon racetrack owners by state racing commissions, especially when it comes to the allotment of racing dates.

Nothing that happened on Thursday changed his mind.

That is when the California Horse Racing Board voted 4-1 to deny Fairplex Park's request to run its 2002 Los Angeles County Fair racing dates at Santa Anita Park, the jewel in the crown of Stronach's Magna Entertainment.

Good for them. The racing commissioners did their job.

Whether they did it for the right reasons remains to be seen.

There was talk about revisiting the issue next year. But why? Nothing in the equation will change. A 17-day fair meeting run at Santa Anita Park between the end of Del Mar and the beginning of the Oak Tree meeting will still be a bad idea in 2003.

The job of a regulatory commission is to say "no, no, no" to selfish corporate enterprise, and to remind them that they need to be good neighbors.

This is also the definition of a thankless task.

There is a temptation to feel sorry for anyone who takes on the challenge of a California racing commissioner. They are politically appointed volunteers, receiving only a modest stipend to defray their racing board expenses. Most of them are otherwise occupied with full-time careers, which leaves precious little time to devote to an undertaking as complex as the regulation of Thoroughbred racing in such an important racing state.

And it's not getting any easier. Never before has a racing board been faced with such powerful racetrack ownerships. California has become a battleground, with Churchill Downs Inc. on one side of the field and Magna Entertainment Corp. on the other. These are large, publicly traded companies whose executives must answer to shareholders first, the industry later.

Magna's attempt at a deal with Fairplex Park was a smart move . . . for Magna. It was also a shrewd gambit by Fairplex Park, an aggressive organization looking to maximize its racing dates while minimizing costs.

But what is good for Magna, or Churchill Downs, is not necessarily good for California racing at large. There are smaller entities in the mix - Oak Tree, Del Mar, and the California Association of Racing Fairs - who must be considered. When one of the big companies shifts its weight, the rest of the picture changes dramatically. Imagine sharing a twin bed with a Russian weight lifter.

As it turns out, the issue over Fairplex Park may have created an opportunity to reform the entire California racing calendar. For more than 30 years, racing dates have been stitched and cobbled together like a pieces of therapeutic handicraft, creating nothing more than a variation on a moribund theme.

In 1968 the calendar was expanded to fill in gaps between Santa Anita and Hollywood in the spring, while making an additional month of racing available in the fall.

In 1981 the calendar was stretched again, this time to accommodate an additional six weeks at the end of the year. The idea was that horse racing deserved to be a year-round business. Just like strip malls and gas stations.

Hollywood itself has gone from a meet of 55 days, to 75, to its current split personality of 66 and 31. The best attendance numbers in Hollywood history came at the 55-day meet of 1965, when an average of 34,516 fans showed up each day. The average for the 2001 spring-summer meet was 8,345.

California needs a calendar that fits with the nature of today's racing realities. For that to happen, Churchill, Magna, and the other players in the equation would need to give as well as take. Radical surgery may be required.

Sacred cows must die. Here are some of the things that could be considered in the mix.

* Present fewer races per day. Six or seven on weekdays. Eight or nine on weekends, tops. Watch the fields and handle grow.

* Leave the year-end holidays alone. Create a two-week "off season" in late December. Move Santa Anita's opening to the first weekend of the New Year and watch it become something special again.

* Put Fairplex out of its misery. Stop running Thoroughbreds in tight little bullring circles. It's not good for them. Redistribute Fairplex dates among the other Southern California meets. Offer Fairplex a short-term subsidy to exit the business with dignity.

* Race five days per week at Del Mar instead of the traditional six. Not all traditions make sense. Extend the meet two weeks farther into September and do not worry about the feared "post-Labor Day" slump. Simulcast business will more than make up for any decline in attendance.

* Encourage Magna's efforts to build a new TV studio-style racetrack and simulcast facility in northern California to replace the decrepit facilities at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields.

Unfortunately, California can't wait for the big companies to do the right thing. New directions will require intervention and negotiation. It might be time for the racing commissioners to lock Magna, Churchill, and the rest of the players in a room and withhold everything but bread and water until a solution can be found.