01/03/2018 3:30PM

Hovdey: Three SoCal leaders give reason for optimism

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It is alarming, but perhaps inevitable, that the overriding conversation in California’s Thoroughbred racing culture has turned from strategies for prosperity to dire warnings of naked survival.

The message from Santa Anita Park executives has industry players looking over their shoulders at every turn. The heirs and successors of Frank Stronach will not tolerate valuable real estate being wasted on a money-burning indulgence like horse racing. Stronach loves the game and vows to stick with it. He is 85, and knock wood in good health. So, as long as Mama Corleone is still alive Fredo is safe from Michael’s revenge? Talk about cold comfort.

The orphan of blame for California’s predicament can be placed at many doorsteps. But nothing changed the game more than the loss of Hollywood Park, which was on its way to closing from the moment the Bay Meadows Land Co. finalized its $257 million purchase of the track from Churchill Downs Inc. in September 2005.

Even so, Hollywood took eight years to die, a sentence delayed in part because the U.S. real estate economy tanked, and in the track’s death throes the health of the California sport suffered, as if harboring an infection that was increasingly toxic.

In its final years, still allotted two meets and as many as 76 racing days each season, Hollywood Park management systematically cut back on purses, deferred maintenance, and gutted its promotional budget. The people running Santa Anita Park and Del Mar were helpless in the face of such neglect. Each year their meets would follow yet another dreary Hollywood Park ordeal that had discouraged ontrack customers and surrendered simulcast market share.

Since the dawn of 2014, the California industry has been living with the physical, economic, and emotional trauma wrought by the disappearance of Hollywood Park, for both racing and training. After four years of struggling to cope with the loss, the industry now faces another ultimatum, a not-so-subtle threat that Santa Anita will go the way of Hollywood Park at some indistinct future date if certain profit markers are not met.

Given the bedrock passion for the sport as a niche, analog pastime in an increasingly digital world, horse racing has a chance to get better. But will better be good enough to survive in a place like California, where there is no casino magic bullet? The answer lies in the give and take among the key stakeholders, namely, the racetrack management, the owners, and the trainers, three groups whose interests seem to clash as often as they overlap.

As a lifelong skeptic with a deep streak of loony optimism, this reporter sees a ray of hope represented by the people who front the three groups.

Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of The Stronach Group, Santa Anita’s parent company, was a jockey, a trainer, and a horsemen’s advocate during the first 46 years of his life before leaping to track management at Gulfstream Park in 2010. Such a catalog of experience would seem to be invaluable in a top management position, but in fact he is rare. The closest Santa Anita has ever come to a COO or general manager with similar life experience was the brief tenure of Chris McCarron as GM nearly 15 years ago. That lasted about a year and a half.

Greg Avioli, CEO of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, served in a similar role with The Stronach Group and the Breeders’ Cup, as well as a tour as chief operating officer of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. He also was an investor in the medical marijuana industry in New Mexico, so clearly he knows which way the wind blows. As an advocate for the economic viability of Thoroughbred investment, Avioli’s job is to identify what’s best for all owners, large and small, and help influence his organization accordingly.

Alan Balch, executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers since 2010, knows firsthand what racing in California was like when it was robust, when the only real problem was counting all the money at the end of the day. As Santa Anita’s senior vice president of marketing during the 1970s and 80s, he christened the track “The Great Race Place” and set into motion a number of racing-oriented promotions that enhanced fan appreciation of the sport rather than distracting from it.

In his role with CTT, he has his hands full advising a membership that can be, to put it mildly, of several minds. In addition, Balch offers regular commentaries in North American Trainer magazine in an attempt to steer the sport toward more successful shores. Not surprisingly, he sees the marketing of the sport as a vital key to sustainable growth.

“The most pronounced, erroneous outlook I sense in racing’s marketing is the idea that since interest in our sport is flat or declining, we need not ‘waste money on advertising’ since the existing racing fans already are aware of the essentials,” Balch wrote in the November issue.

“There are two and only two ways to spur more interest, or maintain what we have,” Balch added. “Stimulate existing fans to be more active, and induce trial from the rest of the market, a more mammoth opportunity than ever in history.”

In the coming weeks, we’ll hear more from these leaders and how they will apply the advice of Ben Franklin to the salvation of the game. Something about hanging together, or separately.