11/08/2007 12:00AM

Land barons less than noble

EmailINGLEWOOD, Calif. - It takes a full set of blinkers to focus on the current Hollywood Park meeting strictly in terms of the sport being offered.

True, there will be good racing if the weather holds, especially during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, when such traditional events as the Matriarch, the Hollywood Derby, and the Citation Handicap promise to attract the best available runners.

There is even reason to hope that the Hollywood Starlet on Dec. 15 and the Hollywood Futurity - now the $750,000 CashCall Futurity - one week later will revive the fortunes of West Coast 2-year-olds who were sidetracked by bad experiences at the Breeders' Cup.

Still, there is an elephant in the room, and it's impossible to ignore, since the big guy represents nothing less than the elimination of Hollywood Park as a part of the nation's racing landscape.

The avowed intention of the current Hollywood Park ownership is to level the track and develop the acreage with office buildings, retail outlets, and high-density housing. This should come as no surprise, since both Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows Racetrack, in San Mateo, are owned by Bay Meadows Land Co. and its parent, Stockbridge Real Estate Funds. Please notice that the key words are "land" and "real estate," to the exclusion of "horse" and "racing."

But no one has cause to complain. Hollywood Park was purchased fair and square from Churchill Downs Inc., and with ownership comes the rights of disposition. Bay Meadows Land and Stockbridge have investors to satisfy, so adios racetracks.

At the same time, Bay Meadows Land and Stockbridge have a responsibility to do as little damage to the racing industry as possible as they make their exit. Already, there have been conflicts over dates and duration of their commitments to race, and as of now, both Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows have been granted meets in 2008, allowing BMLC/Stockbridge to tap into a revenue stream that would not be otherwise available.

BMLC/Stockbridge has further isolated itself from the rest of the California racing community through its $5 million worth of signature-gathering support of a referendum effort that would nullify four Native American casino compacts negotiated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and approved last summer by the California legislature. The compacts allowed the four tribes to add as many as 17,000 slot machines to the 8,000 they currently operate.

The signature drive was successful, which means the four measures - one for each compact - will be part of the Feb. 5, 2008, California presidential primary ballot. (The California referendum process is like a recall of a legislative act. A majority of "yes" votes is required to validate the actions of the legislature, otherwise the law is voided.)

For the last several years, California's racing organizations, with the exception of Bay Meadows Land Co., have been trying to pave a relationship of peaceful coexistence with the casino-rich California tribes.

In the past, the position of racetracks has been to fight tooth and nail any casino expansion, while at the same time demanding a cut of the casino pie as a subsidy for the economically challenged, highly regulated racing business. This strategy has never worked, primarily because the casino interests can overwhelm racing interests when it comes to favorable treatment by legislators.

It was no surprise, then, that representatives of Santa Anita, Golden Gate, Del Mar, and Fairplex Park, along with California's owners and trainers, refused to join BMLC/Stockbridge in their efforts to overturn the casino deals. There are better ways, says Santa Anita's president, Ron Charles, to live in harmony with Native American casinos.

"Let's cut to the chase - we're doing this because we can't beat them," Charles said, referring to the tribes. "They are basically saying that they will help us in other ways, ways they don't look upon as competition. It has taken a while, but now, instead of looking at us as the evil enemy, they're looking at a group with a good relationship.

"Anyway, racing has far too long been impotent in Sacramento," Charles noted. "Aligning ourselves with the tribes is the smart thing to do."

Terry Fancher, the Stockbridge CEO whose company is now part-owner of the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, has insisted that his support of the California referenda is in the best interests of racing. Fancher continues to summon the position that casino expansion takes money from the mouths of racetracks, although no one ever really argued the point. Also, no one ever really listened.

Instead, Charles and his allies are trying to practice a little realpolitik, turning a former enemy into a benefactor. To that end, tracks like Del Mar, Santa Anita, and Fairplex already have individual sponsorship arrangements with some of the state's most powerful tribes. The last thing they needed was one of their own - in this case Bay Meadows/Hollywood Park - stepping up to poison the pool by supporting an attempt to erase lucrative state contracts for slot-machine expansion.

"It took us almost eight months to convince the tribes that we were not a part of the referendum movement," Charles said. "Let's face it - these are very deep-pocket tribes. And if we're ever going to get anything from the governor and the legislature, we're going to want these tribes to be on our side."