03/26/2007 12:00AM

Track's closure can open door


ARCADIA, Calif. - Last Thursday, when the California Horse Racing Board refused to let Bay Meadows operate for the next two years unless it installed a synthetic main track surface, track president F. Jack Liebau called it "a day of infamy" and announced that Bay Meadows, after 73 years of operation, probably would not bother to apply for racing dates in 2008.

"Apparently, they won't license us, so I don't see where they would allocate us any dates," Liebau said Monday.

"Day of infamy" is a catchy phrase. It was even used by a recent teenage boy band out of Florida to name their group, but more traditionally it is summoned to describe the time frame surrounding a really horrible event. Sept. 11, 2001, would qualify.

Just to review the historical context, Dec. 7, 1941 - the original "date which will live in infamy," as intoned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt - was the day the United States military installations at Pearl Harbor and Schofield Barracks in Honolulu, Hawaii, were attacked by Japanese imperial forces.

March 22, 2007, now christened the most recent DOI, was the day a California regulatory agency upheld its own rules in denying a private corporation the right to operate under special circumstances. This would seem to be neither unusual nor infamous, especially since the only concrete justification Bay Meadows management presented for its request was rooted in the cost of installing a synthetic racetrack.

There were other selling points presented by Liebau, cloaked mostly in concern for Northern California horsemen who would be rendered homeless by the closure of Bay Meadows and its infield stable area at the end of the year. This is an argument that could have been productive, except for the fact that the Bay Meadows Land Co., which owns the San Mateo track, already had announced plans to end racing there within the next two years in order to build office space and high-density housing.

"It was inevitable," said John Amerman, one of four commissioners to vote against the Bay Meadows request for a waiver. "I think there is a lot of posturing. In fact, I think it was a case of the Bay Meadows Land Co. accelerating the process of closing the track, and then trying to put the onus on the CHRB, when it really should be the other way around. Day of infamy? I think they tripped the bomb themselves."

The Bay Meadows Land Co. has one shareholder, Stockbridge Real Estate Fund, which in turn must produce profit for its investors, primarily pension funds. Amerman is certainly no stranger to the pressures of running a company backed by public investment, having spent 17 years at the helm of Mattel Inc., the world's best-known toy manufacturer. He was asked if he felt he was beholden to anyone other than Mattel stockholders.

"Most importantly, I think you have to answer to the consumer," Amerman said. "And you have to answer to your employees."

The Bay Meadows-racing board collision illustrated fundamental differences between true believers in the free market system and those who view unregulated capitalism as the gateway drug to destructive greed. The board held its ground when faced with a demand from a privately held racetrack company, insisting only that it take the same steps to improve the quality and safety of its product that the rest of the California industry has taken - including the Bay Meadows Land Co. at its other holding, Hollywood Park, where the artificial surface called Cushion Track has been a success.

"The whole idea that Bay Meadows did not want to invest [in a synthetic track] was really bogus," Amerman said. "They could have recouped a lot of their costs. The surface itself could have been resold to another track. They would have saved a lot in track maintenance. And they would have been able to operate for two more years and make a profit doing it."

Not surprisingly, Liebau disagreed.

"Assuming that all of your earnings were used to offset the cost of the track, so that you made nothing, got no return on your facilities, it would take a number of years to recoup," Liebau said.

As a result, Northern California will be reduced to one major Thoroughbred facility, to go along with a cluster of county fairs.

"We have too many race dates for too few horses as it is," Amerman said. "I did not want Bay Meadows to be the one that went away. I love the place, and as an owner I've been very successful there. But that's personal. I think whoever goes, it just loosens up the calendar a little bit, and we have much more flexibility for racing in California as a result."

As for Liebau, he said he would concentrate on running Hollywood Park for his company - "a pretty good fall-back position" - and maybe play a bit more golf. So there you are. March 22, 2007, wasn't a day of infamy after all. In the long run, it might have been Liberation Day.