12/23/2005 12:00AM

An oval office of a different sort

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Benoit & Associates
Ron Charles begins his second year as president of Santa Anita.

ARCADIA, Calif. - There was a time, and it feels like so very long ago, when no one in the stands gave a hoot about the suits in the executive suite, or what they had to say. Racetrack seasons opened, operated, closed and then opened again, while management remained relatively invisible, quietly presiding over a steady, reliable hum.

Ron Charles grew up in such a racing world, as a teenage racing fan from Glendale, just over the hill from Santa Anita Park. There was no 210 Freeway then, of course, but it was no big deal to head down Brand Avenue, pick up eastbound Colorado Boulevard past Eagle Rock, cross the notorious Suicide Bridge spanning the Arroyo Seco riverbed, and then glide through Pasadena all the way to the back door of the track. And do it as often as possible.

Back then, the only reason anyone knew who ran Santa Anita Park was because there was a big race named in honor of the family patriarch, Charles H. Strub, although the average fan would have been hard-pressed to name the Strub in charge at the time (it was Robert).

Of considerably more importance to Santa Anita's loyal customers was the fact that every winter the Strub Stakes and other major events attracted such national stars as Buckpasser, Damascus, Fort Marcy, Gamely, and Gun Bow, just to name a few. In a town spoiled rotten by constant exposure to the likes of Sandy Koufax, Jerry West, and Deacon Jones, horses like that held their own, headline for headline, through the cool and sometimes rainy days of late winter and early spring.

Fast-forward to the rip-roaring 1990's, and the racing world has turned. Racetrack ownership is all anyone talks about. Racetracks everywhere seem to be in play. Corporations have replaced major stables as the glamour franchise of choice, while vice presidents proliferate and daily numbers trump the morning line. Once considered mere cogs in an institutional monopoly, racetrack managements began to act as if they owned the game.

Charles, an otherwise sensible businessman and racehorse owner, waded into this world in November of 2004, taking on a role with Magna Entertainment Corp. as executive director of its California holdings, and then as president of his beloved Santa Anita Park. He was immediately greeted by the second-wettest Southern California winter in 128 years of record-keeping, with 2 1/2 times the normal rainfall rendering the main track a nearly constant morass and severely restricting turf competition.

At some point, Charles had to convince himself that the weather was not his fault, and that any number of unhappy business setbacks flowed directly from the cloudy skies. (The live gate last year was down 9 percent, while handle from all sources dipped 11.5 percent.) Proud, though, and determined not to let it happen again on his watch, Charles committed his off-season efforts to the issues over which his management team could exert some control - things like field size, smart ad buys, customer comfort, and community relations. The rain would be on its own.

The fruits of their labors will be on display beginning with Monday's opener of the 69th season of racing at Santa Anita Park. With New York in economic turmoil, Fair Grounds closed by Katrina, and Gulfstream Park still under construction, Santa Anita finds itself the nation's only grown-up, fully operational winter racing emporium. That in itself is a plus, not to mention the fact that Santa Anita arrives on the heels of the aesthetically dreary, grassless Hollywood fall meet. The place can't help but look like Shangri-la.

"I am so excited about opening, and so optimistic," Charles said a few days before the opener. "Every meet this year leading up to this point - with the exception of Hollywood fall - has been up. And this is such a spectacular facility. I've been coming here since 1966, and just walking through this place, I feel so fortunate."

Charles is one of those unusual racetrack operators who has been a consumer of the product for far longer than he has been a manager. His style is to mix with the crowd, stay visible and curious, probing for weak spots that sometimes only fans can see.

Charles knows, though, that there are no overnight answers. The problem of small average ontrack attendance, especially, was a long time coming, and it will be a long time gone. It is reasonable, however, to expect Santa Anita to average at least 10,000 patrons each day, as it did as recently as 2001.

To this end, Charles hired the widely respected Allen Gutterman to head Santa Anita's marketing department. A recent study helped identify the most likely ontrack customers, and advertising has been targeted accordingly. Charles also urges his staff to identify the track's biggest bettors, the horseplaying "whales," and cultivate their continued support.

"You can't underestimate the importance of our big players," Charles said. "They've earned the right to be treated special. I called several of them to express gratitude for their business and offer passes for parking and admission. I had one of them tell me that he'd been coming here for more than 25 years and a president of the track had never called, let alone said thank you."

Of course, until recently, fans rarely knew they even existed.