07/08/2005 12:00AM

Sun may set on another park


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - For purposes of emotional stability, racetrackers everywhere are advised to reserve judgment regarding this week's announcement that Churchill Downs Inc. is selling Hollywood Park to the Bay Meadows Land Co., which is owned by the Stockbridge Real Estate Fund, an investment offshoot of Stockbridge Capital Partners, which was bankrolled in large part by the Pennsylvania Public School Employees Retirement System.

On the other hand, it's hard to suppress the panic.

At moments like these, any of the names on a list of modern-day racetrack casualties can trigger a melancholy reaction. Hialeah Park, Longacres, Garden State Park, Ak-Sar-Ben, Detroit Race Course, Sportsman's Park, Centennial, Bowie, Greenwood - rich or poor, in sickness or in fiscal health, at one time or another they all meant something special to their communities, and their demise left a hole in the racing life of loyal fans.

The most recent death notice was posted in May when Atlantic City Racecourse, built in 1946, ran what is almost certain to be the last of its annual four-day meetings that served only to comply with New Jersey simulcasting laws. The rules have changed, which means that Greenwood Racing, owners of Atlantic City, will be able to operate a simulcast facility without the burden of a token race meet.

There is a good chance that racing fans of a certain age can point to a defunct track somewhere as their first taste of the sport. A lot of them were called "park" and that was the way they felt, whether they were named Tropical, Sunshine, Washington, or Miles. The guy pounding at these keys first caught the fever at Cahokia Downs, then at Old Caliente. But it just as easily could have been Jamaica, Narragansett, or Tanforan.

The point being, Thoroughbred racing is a merciless business, labor-intensive and land-hungry, subject to both the handcuffs of government regulation and shifting tides of community demographics. In recent years, the promise of significant offtrack handle temporarily deflected such realities. But in the end, a racetrack must hold its own as a money-making enterprise, constantly justifying the value of the real estate on which it sits.

As guarantees go, the promise of the Bay Meadows Land Co. to operate Hollywood Park as a racetrack for at least three years is no more than mildly reassuring, even though the guarantee is backed by a clause in the sales contract that would require BMLC to pay Churchill Downs a substantial penalty (an eight-figure sum, according to someone familiar with the deal) if the racing rug is pulled out before then.

Still, the changes that BMLC requires to continue to run Hollywood as a racetrack would seem daunting. These include a fundamental shift in the way California state government currently relates to horse racing, especially in the areas of license fees, workers' compensation insurance, and the sharing of Native American casino revenues.

Stockbridge, in the form of Bay Meadows Land Co., is already on the verge of closing down Bay Meadows Racetrack in San Mateo, just south of San Francisco. After developing the track's former stable area into 187,000 square feet of office space, 575 residential units, and almost 90,000 square feet of retail space, the company is awaiting final approval on plans to build more than a million square feet of offices, 1,000 to 1,500 residential units, 150,000 square feet of retail space, and 15 acres of parks and open space on the 83.5 acres now occupied by the grandstand and track.

A cadre of local preservationists is attempting to thwart the process by getting Bay Meadows protected by inclusion on the state's registry of historical places, but even the bravest soldiers can run out of gas in the face of a determined developer.

Tom Meeker, president of a fairly historical place called Churchill Downs, fired a broadside at the California state government during the sale announcement, hammering home the company line that racing is asked to play in an unfair environment and that "California has given up on horse racing."

Meeker's comments, obviously, were a ploy to goad the legislature into some kind of action, while BMLC's three-year "commitment" to Hollywood Park as a racing enterprise has the unmistakable whiff of a high-stakes poker play. To some California stalwarts, however, the tough talk was off target.

"I don't think the gloom that Mr. Meeker laid on us was entirely fair," said Bob Lewis, a director of the Oak Tree Racing Association and two-time winner of Meeker's Kentucky Derby.

"Perhaps his experience with Hollywood Park has not been all that rewarding," Lewis went on. "If there is anyone to blame for the fact that Churchill Downs does not like the five-year association they've had with California racing, perhaps they simply didn't do the due diligence they should have. But I don't think it's all that bad when you buy an asset for $145 million and sell it for $260 million. I'll bet he'd like to do that with a lot of racetracks.

"Many of us who are a part of the industry in California don't share his feeling," Lewis added. "There is still a Santa Anita, a Del Mar, and an Oak Tree Racing Association, and racing will continue on. So I don't think we should lose any sleep over the sale."