01/15/2010 12:00AM

Zetcher makes one deal, awaits another


ARCADIA, Calif. - Instead of going out with the bang of a public auction and the fresh slate of new ownerships, the bankruptcy resolution of Magna Entertainment Corporation's holdings of Santa Anita Park, Golden Gate Fields, and Gulfstream Park has ended with the whimper of intramural accountancy and the rearrangement of deck chairs after a very rocky voyage.

There are two ways of looking at the settlement reached by parent company MI Developments and those holding unsecured Magna Entertainment debts. In one sense, a certain level of continuity will reign. The racetrack division of MI Developments should be a trimmer, tighter, more focused operation than MEC's sprawling landscape. On the other hand, the man behind MEC's grand, failed designs - Frank Stronach - still will be calling the loudest and most important shots. Anyone who thinks this will be a chastened version of the Austro-Canadian auto parts magnate who has learned painful lessons from the experience hasn't read Stronach's interview with The Thoroughbred Times Today newsletter. There wasn't a mea culpa in sight. Apparently, he was doomed to fail: "What I want to get across is that racing has a serious problem," Stronach told the publication. "I tried very hard to get the groups together, the owners of the racetracks, because if there are no racetracks, there is no racing. You think you have a great investment, with the real estate, the buildings, the maintenance, but it doesn't make sense."

Owning and operating a racetrack, specifically Santa Anita, made plenty of sense to former Talbot's CEO Arnold Zetcher and the acquisition committee supported by the board of directors of the Thoroughbred Owners of California. They were ready to bid on the property whenever the bankruptcy court gave the word.

"In a way, I'm a little disappointed we didn't get a chance to bid," Zetcher said. "But we continue to have a very strong interest in making sure horsemen are involved, and that the future of racing is protected."

Zetcher envisions a California horsemen's group stepping up to operate Santa Anita and Golden Gate, with MID as landlords.

"Even though the acquisition phase of the process is at an end, we are continuing to have discussions with MID, regarding an arrangement by which we could oversee the entire racing operation," Zetcher said. "There are still a lot of discussions that need to take place. The important thing is that the door is open for that to happen."

In the meantime, Zetcher has plenty of other things to occupy his time at the track. The hot pink and polka-dotted silks of Arnold and Ellen Zetcher flew high and wide in 2009, with a dream season during which their runners earned $1,761,591 and won major stakes from coast to coast.

The 2010 season dawned with the Zetcher stable looking potentially just as strong, especially among 3-year-old fillies. Always a Princess finished second to Blind Luck in the '09 Oak Leaf Stakes, while Miss Heather Lee ran second to Blind Luck in the Hollywood Starlet. Bayakoa Handicap winner Zardana is pointing for races on both grass and synthetics, and Gabby's Golden Gal, the Zetchers' homebred winner of the 2009 Acorn and Sunland Oaks, figures to improve off her seventh-place finish in the La Brea Stakes on the final weekend of 2009.

"We were clearly disappointed," Zetcher said of the La Brea. "There is a question of whether or not she liked the racing surface. But she was also coming back after six months, and she did tire. We'll probably try her again on the surface, but we know she likes the dirt in the East, so a lot of possibilities remain open."

As for the big horse, Pacific Classic winner Richard's Kid, Zetcher has sold the son of Lemon Drop Kid to Sheikh Rashid al-Maktoum, son of Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, for an undisclosed sum. Richard's Kid will remain with trainer Bob Baffert for now and be pointed toward the Dubai World Cup in March.

"We thought an awful lot of Richard's Kid, so it had to be a number that really got my attention," Zetcher said. "The good news is that, if he wins the World Cup, we will benefit, according to the terms of the sale. It will be great to be able to really root for him if he runs there.

"It's a lot of fun talking like this," said Zetcher. "And we've learned a lot in the last 10 years. Those first five or six years I was still working at my full-time job. Horse racing is like anything else - it needs attention. Since I retired and became more active in the operation, and getting more involved in decisions, there's no question that what I learned in business applies to what I'm doing in horse racing.

"But you can't do it based just on business and not understand horse racing," Zetcher added. "And you can't do it just understanding horse racing and forget the business part. When the two come together, it all should be worthwhile."