03/30/2012 2:52PM

Santa Anita: Verge brings new energy as track's ‘face’

Shigeki Kikkawa
Mark Verge took over as Santa Anita’s CEO in mid-March.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Stand in one place long enough on a typical raceday at Santa Anita and chances are a thin, 6-foot-tall man will roll by in a dark suit and fedora, trailed by a few colleagues, shaking hands with nearly everyone in his path and proving impossible to ignore.
The whirlwind of activity surrounds Mark Verge, new chief executive officer at Santa Anita, a 44-year-old native of Southern California, and a horse owner for 15 years.

Verge started in mid-March, replacing former Breeders’ Cup executive Greg Avioli, who oversaw all of the racetracks owned by Santa Anita’s owner, Frank Stronach. Verge is focusing his energy on Santa Anita, referring to himself casually as “The Guy” or “The Man” in charge.

Verge displays a casual attitude, quick with a laugh and glad to see you. But a little more than two weeks into the job, Verge has surprised some people with his aggressive methods. He seems determined to increase the track’s marketing and promotional presence in a crowded regional sports market, unafraid to call in consultants or seek advice from horse owners.

“Who beats this?” he said between races last weekend. “I’ve got the keys to the house.”

His rise to chief executive began in late February after a chance meeting with Stronach. Verge operates several businesses in Los Angeles, notably Westsiderentals.com, which organizes apartment leases for landlords. Verge races under the name Westsiderental.com and has holdings in a Santa Monica hotel and restaurants in downtown Los Angeles.

For years, Verge had sought a role in helping Hollywood Park or Santa Anita in marketing and promotions. When a lifelong friend, trainer Doug O’Neill, visited with Stronach at Santa Anita in late February, Verge had a chance to meet the track’s 13-year owner. Stronach and Verge later met at a local hotel.

In what amounted to a job interview, Verge recalls telling Stronach of his ideas for promotion and marketing, a department that has been devastated in recent years through budget and staff cuts.

“I told Frank, ‘Here’s how we change it,’ ” Verge said. “You need a face of Santa Anita. You’re an absentee owner. You need someone who has skin in the game. I can be the face.”

Verge’s proposals included fundamentals such as radio advertisements, which began in earnest last week; newspaper advertisements, scheduled to begin this week in the Los Angeles area; and a reduction in admission and concession costs, scheduled to start Thursday.
Verge has sought the advice of prominent owners, such as Paul Reddam, who owns the CashCall lending company, and Mike Pegram, chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners of California. Pegram’s businesses include a chain of McDonald’s restaurants and a Nevada casino.

“Mark is a high-energy guy that loves the sport,” Pegram said. “High energy is good, and so is his love of the sport. We need help.”

Reddam and Verge are part of a group of owners that joined with Santa Anita to finance a series of newspaper advertisements through the end of the winter-spring meeting on April 22. The involvement of outside sources for promotional revenue is a reflection of Santa Anita’s budget constraints, Verge said.

Verge takes on the role of chief executive at a time when the rate of fatalities at racetracks in California, and nationally, is being scrutinized.
He said he is well aware of the issue and will follow the counsel of Jason Spetnagel, Santa Anita’s director of facilities and grounds, who oversees maintenance of the racetrack. Santa Anita replaced a synthetic track with a dirt surface in the fall 2010 and modified the surface the last summer.

“I think the dirt’s improving,” Verge said. “I’m putting my trust in the track superintendent.”

Verge traces his infatuation with racing to a Sunday afternoon at Santa Anita in March 1981. Verge and O’Neill, barely teenagers at the time, came to the track with a sports coach. Verge remembers where they stood – near the breezeway that leads from the main entrance to the track apron; how much they bet – $10; and the first two finishers of that race – Crimson Commander and Joe Blot. It was the last race of the day, a $32,000 claimer for sprinters, and O’Neill and Verge each collected a $118 exacta.

Both were hooked. Eventually, O’Neill turned to training, Verge to business after attending Santa Monica College and UCLA, always following Thoroughbred racing. Verge was one of O’Neill’s first clients in the 1990s. With O’Neill training, Verge has been a co-owner of such runners as Informed, who won the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar and Californian Stakes at Hollywood Park in 2009, and Tones, who won the Baffle Stakes in February at Santa Anita.

With the season nearly over, Verge knows there is little time to implement ideas, although a major promotional push is under way for the Santa Anita Derby program on April 7.

The next goals will be trying to build business for off-season simulcasting and to plan for the Santa Anita autumn meeting. He says his focus will remain on promoting the game, leaving the day-to-day business of Santa Anita to president George Haines.

How much of an influence Verge can have on Santa Anita will take time to tell. He hopes to stay in the job indefinitely, but admits to taking a short-term approach.

“I’ll look at it like I’ll be here for two weeks,” he said. “I have a nice life to fall back on. Stronach promised me loyalty.

“It could be a lot of fun. This is Apple stock at 10 cents. We have great potential.”