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Where will Santa Anita be in five years?
In the fall of 1999, there was some sort of a function in the Chandelier Room at Santa Anita. A few of us, including Frank Stronach, left by way of the walkway in front of the theater-style seats in the Turf Club. We said our good nights in the twilight, looking down on the finish line at the vacant track.
"Won't be long before the millennium is here," someone said, just making small talk.
Stronach was transfixed. If he had been in a cartoon, a light bulb would have gone on over his head.
"The millennium!" he said. "Sure, the millennium. Hey, that's right, we'll be open on New Year's Eve. We could have racing right up to the millennium. Right up to midnight. Just extend the afternoon card. It wouldn't have to be a lot of extra races, just a few. We could space them out to get us up to midnight."
As Stronach continued walking, leaving most of us, Stuart Zanville, Santa Anita's PR man, looked at me: "Who's going to be the first guy to tell him that we don't have lights?"
Since that day, about a year after his Magna company had bought the track, Stronach and Santa Anita have suffered through a barrage of hard times, including the shackles of bankruptcy protection. But there are still those in the industry who see a rainbow. For Ron Charles, one of the lights at the end of the tunnel is lights. A tad late for Stronach's millennium, but lights.
Charles, president and CEO of Santa Anita, and many other industry observers were asked by Daily Racing Form to rent a crystal ball and see what it foretold for Santa Anita five years from now. "Five weeks or five years?" one of them said. For the overly cautious, we were willing to settle for two or three years down the road.
"We'll have lights for night racing in perhaps a couple of years," Charles said. "The local community has resisted this for 75 years, ever since Santa Anita opened, but we're making progress talking with them, and I'm confident that it's going to happen."
Hollywood Park, the first Thoroughbred track in Southern California to install lights, introduced Friday night cards in 1991. Churchill Downs introduced night racing last year, using temporary lights, and since then has installed permanent lights.
"Besides live racing at night, we'll be able to take betting on the races from Asia," Charles said.
Charles said he is also confident that by 2013, racing's relationship with the state legislature in Sacramento will be vastly improved. It is no exaggeration that the sport has been on the far back burner for every California governor dating back to Ronald Reagan in the early 1970s.
"We've had some in-depth discussions with Sacramento recently," Charles said. "I think many legislators up there are coming to understand what dire straits our industry is in. They're starting to give a more receptive ear to our plight.
"It's one of the reasons I'm optimistic about the future," he said. "This is an opportunity for racing at two levels: We can better ourselves legislatively, but just as importantly we need to continue this movement toward a united front among ourselves and show Sacramento that we're not an industry that's always squabbling and bogged down by in-fighting."
After talking about what California racing might have in a few years, Charles reversed himself to consider what it still might want: a stronger horse population.
"Everything goes back to better purses," he said. "That's the most important issue, and I can't see it turning around in a hurry. If the purses get better, the horse shortage will eventually abate. There'll be an incentive to breed and to race. We're at a competitive disadvantage with the states that have slots, and the number of those states will grow in the future."
Charles would like to snap his fingers and restore field sizes at Santa Anita to the levels they once were, but he says that issue won't be easily solved and isn't as clear-cut as it might seem.
"There are field sizes, and there are field sizes," Charles said. "Our patrons are used to a high-quality product. That's what our fans want and expect. There are tracks with high field sizes and low handles because bettors need quality as well as quantity.
"ADW will continue to grow, perhaps at the expense of Nevada racebooks and OTBs," he said of advance-deposit wagering. "Horse ownership has to improve. It has to, because it's at a crisis point now. Economically, it's never been worse, and I've been owning and racing horses for more than 30 years."
Charles chose not to project how the Magna bankruptcy and the still-anticipated closing of Hollywood Park will shake out over the years. But he said it is critical that Santa Anita obtains additional racing dates in order to survive.
"We need added revenue, and more dates will take us in that direction," he said.
Charles also preferred to wait until his announcement, expected soon, about what kind of racing surface Santa Anita would have in the future.
Santa Anita's conversion to a synthetic main track, mandated by the California Horse Racing Board a few years ago, has been an expensive series of crises. The original synthetic, Cushion Track, resulted in a Santa Anita lawsuit against the manufacturer, and the current Pro-Ride surface, which in reality is a hybrid of the old and the new, has had an ongoing drainage problem during Southern California's rainy winter. Santa Anita has lost four days this meet, including last Saturday, when the track was unable to run a stakes program that included the Grade 1 Las Virgenes, Grade 2 Strub, and the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis. All three were rescheduled for Saturday.
While Charles would not say the word d-i-r-t, others connected with Santa Anita seem positive that is what horses will again be running over in Arcadia.
"I expect Santa Anita to be a dirt track again," said Rick Arthur, a well-known veterinarian who is vice president of the Oak Tree Racing Association, which leases the track from Santa Anita for an annual fall meet. "They've tried to fix the synthetic surface that they've had, and it just hasn't worked. It was the old case of trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear."
Barry Irwin's crystal ball took him into 2014. He said he sees Stronach as a survivor, but that his racetrack empire will be a shell of what it is now. Irwin is president of Team Valor International, which races horses in partnerships. Team Valor, now a Kentucky outfit, used to be based in California. It won the Santa Anita Handicap with Martial Law in 1993 and the Santa Anita Derby with The Deputy in 2000.
"Frank Stronach will be 82 years old in five years," Irwin said. "Santa Anita will be the only remaining racetrack he owns. He will be spending [his days] trying to figure out how to keep the property and the [automobile] business in his possession."
Irwin said he thinks Stronach's wife, Frieda, and his son Andy would be unlikely to follow in his footsteps. Stronach's daughter Belinda, who has been politically active on a national level in Canada, has never shown a business interest in her father's racetrack operations. Andy Stronach has been more active in the family's breeding interests than on the racetrack side.
Frank Stronach did not respond to interview requests.
Marty Wygod, who with his wife, Pam, raced Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic winner Life Is Sweet, said he would like to see a different picture at Santa Anita in five years.
"If I had my wish, Santa Anita and Hollywood Park would both be managed by the same not-for-profit team," he said.
Wygod, a board member at the non-dividend-paying Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, posits a novel future change: training at Hollywood Park and racing at Santa Anita.
"Horses could be shipped from Hollywood to Santa Anita," Wygod said, referring to a trip of about 35 miles. "At Santa Anita, there would be a pristine dirt track and turf course. To do this, there would have to be substantially extended race dates at Santa Anita."
John Harris, a member of the California Horse Racing Board and owner of Harris Farm near Coalingua, Calif., sees all of the stabling at Santa Anita.
"I am assuming that Hollywood Park has gone away [in five years], but those tea leaves are still a bit murky," said Harris, 66. "With all of the stabling on-track, the funds now used for stabling and vanning would be going into purses. Trainers with horses to lay up would send them to farms, most of which have capacity to take more horses at far cheaper rates.
"The best-case scenario would be Santa Anita successfully operating a majority of the Southern California dates but still allowing somewhat expanded dates for Del Mar and Fairplex Park."
Harris said he thinks a four-day race week at Santa Anita, instead of five, is realistic. Del Mar has felt that its schedule, which was reduced from six to five days of racing, has been successful.
"We'll still be feeling the brunt of the current horse shortage and the lack of revenue during these hard economic times," said Harris, adding that the long, unsuccessful attempt to install slot machines at California tracks has died and won't be revived.
"Racing has given up on that idea," he said. "But I can see the introduction of a type of wager with broad customer appeal that captures the slot-machine market. It would be the kind of thing that folks would look forward to playing every week.
"I can see Santa Anita generating a daily average handle of well over $10 million, and $20 million to $25 million on weekends would be the norm," he said. "[By 2015], the grandstand area will be shrunk to make it seem less spread out. The excess land will have been sold off and the money put back into improving the stable area and infrastructure, as well as customer amenity enhancements. I think big days at the track will have a rebound in popularity and become a hot-ticket item."
Harris's recent successor as racing board chairman, Keith Brackpool, said he is upbeat about Santa Anita. Originally from England, Brackpool, 52, uses a soccer analogy to offer his prediction for the track.
"When the Premier League over there signed a TV contract, everybody said that this was the beginning of the end for the live audience," Brackpool said. "But nothing's changed. You still can't get a ticket for almost all of the matches, and the reason is that the product is great. I believe that Santa Anita will continue to improve on its product, and people will come, including an influx of younger fans.
"The mountains behind Santa Anita are not going to go away, and they help make the track one of the great facilities of the world," he said. "I'm convinced that the great facilities will always thrive. There's going to be resurgence in promotions. The problems racing has can be fixed. There's too much passion, too much commitment to this sport for the industry to lose a Santa Anita."
Roger Stein, a California trainer and the host of a weekend radio show about racing, said Santa Anita's racing calendar will be down to a three-day week in five years.
"Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, that will be about it, and you can throw in holidays if you want to be optimistic," he said. "There will be some type of [legislative] relief to increase the purses the horses run for, and it will come from some other state revenue source - Indian gaming, some type of gaming machines that fall short of real slot machines."
Less could be more, Stein predicts.
"There will be a revival of sorts, and racing will gain in popularity," he said. "But it will never again reach its so-called heydays. California-breds will dominate the entries, making up well over 40 percent of the entries.
"There will be some type of relief for breeders, as well, and the recession as we know it now will be an ancient memory," he said. "However, people will never again spend their money the way they did in the early 2000s and before that. If you believe that you can remain in the game until such time as there is this turn-around, get tied on, because the journey will definitely be one with plenty of dips and dives."
Ed Halpern, a trainer whose 11-year run as executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers recently ended, looked into his crystal ball and saw stormy seas followed by possible sunshine.
"Racing's in for a rough ride," Halpern said. "The horse population in California has dropped almost 30 percent in the last year and a half. That will turn around when the economy turns around, but not enough to recover all that's been lost.
"The best but very painful scenario is that the industry gets in such trouble that the state finally allows some kind of alternative gaming at tracks," he said. "I think the horizon for that is two to three years, and the startup could take another year. If that happens, Santa Anita will benefit from a major industry revitalization in five years. If Hollywood Park closes before that happens, Santa Anita will pick up 50 or more additional racing days and become the most successful track in the U.S."
But the crystal ball is highly fallible, Halpern cautions.
"If none of that happens, we'll see a compression of the entire racing calendar," he said. "There will be fewer races, fewer race days, and possibly just one state-wide circuit. The Northern and Southern California circuits could become just one under this scenario."
Roger Licht, former chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, looked five years down the road and, without making a prediction, submitted a wish list:
"It's about time Santa Anita restructures the distribution of its [telecast] signal. Santa Anita will continue to be a valuable brand and commodity, and the time has come for it not to virtually give away its signal, due to industry pressures.
"Another thing: I would love to see Santa Anita take a stand against the recipients of its signal," he said. "The idea that someone bets $100 in Las Vegas and that the Las Vegas racebook would keep approximately $15 of that bet, is absurd. Under that scenario, the tracks and the horsemen would split $5.
"Perhaps, in five years time or less, the industry will be directed to curtail the illegal offshore wagering that impacts our handle to a large degree," he said. "This includes pressure on the authorities to prosecute this handle that is stolen from the tracks and horsemen. The television and computer video of the races are basically provided without cost to people that place their bets elsewhere."
Even without these measures, Licht said he sees Santa Anita as a survivor.
"It is and will always be The Great Race Place," he said.
Hear, hear, said Jerry Moss, co-owner of the undefeated Zenyatta.
"I'm very positive down the road," Moss said. "In five years, I see Santa Anita having a beautiful, wonderful dirt racetrack and the Breeders' Cup being run there every other year. In five years, Santa Anita will be the best racing center in the U.S."
Echoing that opinion to an extent was Doug Burge, general manager of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association.
"I foresee stability in the future for Santa Anita," Burge said. "Stability with the ownership so that owners and breeders can be confident with the long-term preservation of the track, and stability with a consistent and safe racing surface, whether it be dirt or synthetic.
"California has a long history and will overcome the current issues," he said. "However, ways must be found to increase purses and incentives to improve on the economics of everyone involved."
Vladimir Cerin, a Santa Anita trainer, said he is seeing more young people coming to the races there, and he expects the trend to continue.
"I think younger people are discovering that racing is an intellectual game, and that it's quite a bit different than a coin toss, which is the equivalent of what you have playing a slot machine," Cerin said.
The enemy of racing is the middle man, according to Cerin, applying a catch-all label to all the hands that reach into the parimutuel pie before the horsemen get their slice.
"Fees for marketing expenses, TVG's cut, Youbet's cut - where does it end?" Cerin said. "It has to eventually end to make any kind of a business plan work. We're doubling our handle over the last couple of decades, yet the purses are going backward. You see these companies - TVG, Youbet.com - when they're sold, they go for tens of millions of dollars. But what do they do to deserve that kind of money?"
Drew Couto, president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California for eight years, is out of racing now, contemplating a book about his decades in the industry. Couto projects that if Hollywood Park refuses to go away, Santa Anita will suffer.
"I'm very concerned about the future of Santa Anita," he said. "There's not enough support anymore to keep two tracks going. But I'm convinced that whoever owns Santa Anita five years from now, they should just concentrate on racing. In the future, there's still going to be a shortage of horses. It's critical now, and I don't know whether it will get that much better. A lot of mares are going unbred and being sold. Unless there's a contraction of racing, there's going to be a huge shortage of horses."
Marje Everett, who used to run Hollywood Park, said she misses the people in racing more than the game itself. Everett, 88, who led Arlington Park before moving to California, left Hollywood in 1991 after a bitter proxy fight with a group led by R.D. Hubbard. She had a grim prediction for Santa Anita.
"I've been away from the game, but I pay attention and talk to people, and I think Santa Anita's on its way to a slow death," Everett said. "There's no other way to put it. The industry is dying and so is Santa Anita. It's a shame, because we're talking about one of racing's historic tracks. But I see no strong leadership, no innovation. I don't see how the downward spiral can be reversed."
Marje Everett, Ron Charles, John Harris, Jerry Moss, et al, they're the so-called experts, then and now. After talking to many of them, I still didn't feel like I had my Rosetta stone. For reasons of his own, Jess Jackson said no dice to this project, and a few others also declined, so I decided to go outside the game - just this side of Mars - to obtain a definitive projection about Santa Anita. That, of course, would be AskNow.com, which advertises free psychic readings: "Ask the thousands of people who were BLOWN AWAY at what our amazing psychics had to say."
Okay, AskNow, blow me away. "Santa Anita, a racetrack in California, has been struggling," I sent in. "Please tell me what Santa Anita will be like in five years."
A couple of days later, there was a response. "Now, Bill," it said, and even though this was cyberspace, I could sense I was being chided. "Surely, you can come up with a better need than that."
I think that was their way of saying that the long-term future of Santa Anita is out of their league. I get that part. Not-so-easy questions don't deserve easy answers.
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* Marty McGee on Biker Boy, who'll try for his first stakes in the Gulfstream Sprint Championship
* David Grening profiles trainer Todd Pletcher's New York-based assistant, Jonathan Thomas
* Plus video analysis of the weekend's biggest stakes