01/27/2004 1:00AM

Liebau leaving Magna

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Jack Liebau, the president of Magna Entertainment's three California racetracks, said he was resigning after declining an offer from chairman Frank Stronach to take a corporate position on the national level.

Liebau, 65, said that Stronach told him on Saturday that he was being replaced as the president of Santa Anita by Jack McDaniel, an entertainment executive who oversaw the development and construction of the track's new grandstand restaurant, Sirona.

Liebau said he was offered a position as vice chairman of the Magna board of directors, but he declined.

"We're pretty well staffed at the national level," Liebau said on Sunday. "I'd just be adding to that. I've sent a letter. I think they'd accept it as a voluntary resignation. I'm not interested in the position that was offered."

According to his management contract, Liebau said, he must give a 60-day resignation notice. Sunday, Liebau said he expected the resignation to become effective before then. Liebau said he was uncertain of his future plans. He owns Valley Creek Farm in Valley Center, Calif., and is a member of The Jockey Club.

It was not immediately clear how Liebau's resignation will affect the responsibilities of top Santa Anita officials. Chris McCarron, the Hall of Fame jockey who joined Santa Anita as general manager last spring, declined to comment on the changes.

Liebau's resignation is the latest in a series of front-office changes at Santa Anita since Stronach acquired the track in December 1998.

In 1999, Bill Baker, the track president, and Cliff Goodrich, who worked at Santa Anita in various management capacities for 20 years, left the company. Lonny Powell became president and chief executive in 1999 but left in 2000. Liebau assumed the position as president in October 2000.

At the time, Liebau retained his position as president of Bay Meadows. He became president of Golden Gate Fields in 2000 when Magna acquired that track. In recent years, Liebau frequently traveled among the three tracks and represented Magna before the California Horse Racing Board.

In a statement, Liebau said, "I leave with the distinction of lasting longer under Mr. Stronach's reign at Santa Anita than any of my predecessors and I am probably the only senior person to have left Magna without being entitled to a severance payment as a result of my voluntary resignation."

Liebau's departure comes at a time when Magna Entertainment is struggling on several fronts.

The company's two signature tracks - Gulfstream Park in Florida and Santa Anita - have had declines in mutuel handle this winter. Further, the company has drawn the ire of some bettors after Magna withdrew the signals of Gulfstream and Santa Anita from several account wagering companies in an effort to promote its own wagering service, XpressBet.

In his statement, Liebau said he was frustrated in dealing with a variety of problems that filtered down to the local level. "As a result of my resignation, I will no longer be faced each morning with a stack of complaints that I am powerless to do anything about," he said.

Liebau said he had differences with Stronach about Santa Anita's future, particularly with some of Stronach's plans to add entertainment attractions to the grounds at a time when Liebau said he was instructed to cut costs.

"To say the least, my tenure was challenging," Liebau said. "One of the difficult problems I faced was the conflict between the short-term financial goals at the corporate level of Magna and Mr. Stronach's visionary goals for horse racing."

Saturday, when Stronach was at Santa Anita for the Sunshine Millions program, he said he hoped to revive a five-year-old plan to build an entertainment facility at Santa Anita. McDaniel, Libeau's successor, has a background in the entertainment industry. In the 1980's, he led the management team that built Universal Studios Florida. In 1994, he launched Action Design and Production, a theme park design and construction company.

"Frank probably decided that I wasn't inclined to do the things to turn Santa Anita into what he wants it to be," Liebau said. "I think they will go more toward entertainment.

"He has invested money. Sometimes I think he takes a bad rap. The company has, under his direction, invested a lot of money."