09/18/2004 12:00AM

Tracks file lawsuit against state


POMONA, Calif. - Faced with uncertainty over the very future of California racing, industry officials are campaigning for change on two fronts. A legal battle has begun that would modify the state's gambling laws that currently are sympathetic to American Indian tribes, while political maneuvering could alter the complexion of the Southern California racing circuit.

Five racetracks joined in a lawsuit against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state of California that challenges the constitutionality of deals allowing casino-style gambling for five American Indian tribes. Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Golden Gate Fields, Bay Meadows, and Los Alamitos filed the suit, which would negate those deals.

Fairplex Park officials, meanwhile, are hopeful that Schwarzenegger will sign a bill that would allow the track to expand from its current five-eighths-mile circumference to one mile. The bill was passed by the Assembly early this month and is on the governor's desk. But even if the bill is signed, the expansion plans could face challenges from within the racing industry.

The lawsuit challenges the legality of agreements with five Indian tribes that give them the right to install slot machines in exchange for a percentage of profits. The lawsuit contends that the state constitution prohibits bills that grant "special privilege, or create any vested right or interest."

The five tracks have sponsored a November referendum that could allow slot machines to be installed at racetracks and card rooms. Officials expect that slot machines at racetracks would generate significant purse increases.

While the lawsuit is likely to become tied up in the courts, the Fairplex bill only needs the governor's signature to become law. Under the bill, anticipated additional revenue from a mile racetrack would pay for the cost of the expansion.

Los Angeles County Fair president Jim Henwood said speculation that Hollywood might one day run dates at Fairplex "is not the motivation for expanding our racetrack. The purpose is more internal than external."

Henwood said plans call for Fairplex to add a turf course, and that expanding the track to one mile would increase field size.

"Our intent is to offer the same level [of racing] as our tradition," Henwood said. "We'll just be running these races on a mile track."

If the bill is signed, expansion of the track could be completed in time for the 2006 meet. The 17-day Los Angeles County Fair race meet is run each September between the closing of the Del Mar meet and the beginning of the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita.