11/09/2012 5:03PM

Santa Anita: Verge out as track's chief executive

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Mark Verge’s tenure as chief executive officer for Santa Anita Park has ended, according to two California officials with knowledge of the situation.

Staff members at Santa Anita were informed of Verge’s departure at a meeting at the track Thursday, the officials said. Verge, a horse owner who operates more than a dozen businesses in the Los Angeles area, was hired last March by Frank Stronach to concentrate on marketing efforts at the racetrack, vowing to increase ontrack handle and attendance. Stronach is the owner of the Stronach Group, the private company that owns Santa Anita and many other racing properties.

“He was always about marketing, and he was a very positive guy,” one official said Friday, referring to Verge and speaking on condition of anonymity because the move had not been announced by Santa Anita. “I got along with him.”

Verge, who is good friends with trainer Doug O’Neill, did not return a message left on his cell phone. Officials of the Stronach Group also did not return phone calls.

The departure of Verge has led to speculation that the Stronach Group might bring aboard Gene Simmons, the bassist for the rock group Kiss, to perform marketing functions at the company’s tracks, the officials said. A company affiliated with Simmons helped market an energy drink launched by Stronach and his son, Andrew. The drink failed as a commercial enterprise.

In an interview just after he was hired, Verge said that he had a “passion” for horse racing and that he intended to drum up publicity for the sport. Although he was later given the title of chief executive, operational duties remained the responsibility of the track’s longtime general manager, George Haines.

During Santa Anita’s recently completed meet, which featured the two Breeders’ Cup championship programs, ontrack handle and attendance declined approximately 5 percent compared with the 2011 meeting, excluding the figures for the two Breeders’ Cup cards, officials said. All-sources handle was up approximately 5 percent, excluding the Breeders’ Cup cards, according to the track.