It's not every day that a racing company's plans for the future are laid out in stark terms anyone can understand. More often than not, the public is delivered corporate platitudes and pies in the sky. Not so last Wednesday at Santa Anita, where track owner Frank Stronach and chief operating officer Tim Ritvo answered pointed questions from a group of owners and trainers concerning the future of California racing in the wake of the San Luis Rey Downs fire.
The Stronach Group owns San Luis Rey Downs, and since the closure of Hollywood Park in early 2014 it has been maintained as a popular facility used by the stables of some of California's top trainers. Horses win running out of San Luis Rey, just as they win running out of training centers like Fair Hill, Payson Park, or Palm Meadows.
Stronach seemed quite taken by San Luis Rey when it was acquired by his former company Magna Entertainment Corp. In January of 2001, he described the training center as "an annex to Santa Anita."
"I'm going to spruce it up," Stronach said in the story. "We're going to put in new barns, and build a turf course. I'll send more horses to California when all that is completed. I hope to have that done this year."
Events intervened. MEC went bankrupt. The Stronach Group replaced MEC as a privately held racing and gaming ownership company. Hollywood Park closed, and Los Alamitos stepped up to build stalls and present brief Thoroughbred meets, while San Luis Rey added its 500 stalls to the mix.
Then came the fire, which destroyed seven of the 14 San Luis Rey barns and damaged another, leaving only about 200 stalls unaffected. The most important questions were obvious.
"We'd like to get right back into San Luis Rey," Ritvo told the audience. "I've instructed [general manager] Kevin Habell to do best you can get the 200 stalls cleaned up and available."
Beyond that, there was nothing definitive about restoring the full, pre-fire capacity of San Luis Rey or even the long-term use of the training center. Stronach's attitude toward San Luis Rey had definitely changed.
"I never really liked it that much," he told the meeting. "It's a slight handicap whoever trains down there.
"I want to put the barns here," Stronach added, referring to Santa Anita. "If we have 2,500 stalls here I think we could run a very good meeting. We want to rebuild the old ones, too, because that's a tinderbox."
The thorny issue of replacing the most antiquated barns of the Santa Anita Park backstretch has hovered over Stronach since he bought the place. In April of 1999, five months after the purchase, the Los Angeles Times reported: "Stronach said that the first phase of his remodeling program at Santa Anita would be an $18 million project that includes relocating the barn area to the north parking lot. Also planned are a new dining room and new dormitories for backstretch help, plus an English-style turf training center near the new barn area."
Now, if Stronach is to be taken at his word, the building of new barns at Santa Anita has become a priority once again. This time, however, the project would come at a cost to the rest of the industry, because, as Stronach put it, "You won't find the [money] we've invested in the return. So the issue is who's paying for it."
In order to justify the building of new barns at Santa Anita, envisioned in the expanse of parking lot on the north side of the property, Stronach said he would need:
1. Consolidation of Southern California stabling at Santa Anita
2. Elimination of the vanning and stabling fund that pays for the use of off-sites like Los Alamitos (and, currently, the emergency stabling of San Luis Rey evacuees at Del Mar), and the shifting of fund money to purses
3. More racing days
"I want to see a commitment from the horsemen," Stronach said. "I'm saying if we get extra days I think we will make more money, and that will pay for the barns. We could have barns up here in about two months."
The following day, Ritvo told a meeting of the California Horse Racing Board, "There will be some fast and swift reactions on how to move forward and repair barns, build new barns both at San Luis Rey and Santa Anita."
That was reassuring to the racing community, but like everything, the devil is in the details.
Ritvo is intent on applying in California some of the key changes made with Stronach Group tracks in Florida and Maryland that resulted in strong business turnarounds, including long-term purse contracts and as close to year-round racing as possible. The alternative, suggested his boss, is not hopeful.
"If Santa Anita is not here, there will be no racing in California," Stronach said. "That would be a shame. I make a contribution because it's a wonderful place that should never be developed."
Bob Baffert, among those in attendance, took the comments of Stronach and Ritvo as a reality check.
"We all know that tracks like Santa Anita, especially where it's at, can't sustain being a racetrack forever, especially as big as it is," Baffert said.
"Frank's a horseman and he loves the game," Baffert added. "I think people left there knowing he's got commitment, but he's got to have some things happen to keep going."