Without slots, sale could doom Hollywood racing

Jul 12, 2005 12:21 AM

Hollywood Park, once a Herculean racing mainstay known as "The Track of the Lakes and Flowers," now appears to be a lame duck patient on life support. Call it "The track of the Wakes and Final Hours."

Unless legislation is approved in California that permits slot machines at race tracks, Hollywood Park will conduct racing for the next three years but probably close after that.

Those terms were part of a deal announced last Wednesday, in which the Bay Meadows Land Co. agreed to pay $260 million for the track and its surrounding 238 acres. Without the help of revenue generated from slot machines, racing at Hollywood is expected to end after 60 years.

A letter to track employees from Tom Meeker, president and CEO of Churchill Downs, Inc., which sold the track to Bay Meadows, stated in part: "When CDI invested in Hollywood Park six years ago (at a purchase price of $140 million), we were thrilled to bring on board a great racetrack and great team of employees, and at the same time gain a foothold in the strong California racing market. Through no fault of our employees or our company, that market has changed dramatically over the past few years. It is now extremely difficult to run a profitable racing operation in California. The company explored a number of options for Hollywood Park before finally coming to this course of action.

"The arrangement offered by BMLC has many positives for Hollywood Park. First, unlike a number of other bidders, BMLC has vowed to keep the racetrack in operation for a minimum of three years and to retain most Hollywood Park employees . . . Second, as soon-to-be owners of two racetracks in California (BMLC also owns Bay Meadows racetrack in San Mateo) BMLC has indicated plans to work for essential changes that would level the playing field for racing in the state, and that includes seeking legislative relief for horse racing. While it is too early to speculate on what might occur in three years, we are hopeful that during this time frame the state and industry can figure out a means to improve the racing environment in California."

But don’t bet on it. With California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger beholden to the state’s Native Americans and their stranglehold on casinos and slots, and with the Indians having the strongest lobby this side of the NRA, racing beyond three years at Hollywood Park seems to have as much chance as a $10,000 sprinter trying to win the mile and a half Belmont Stakes.

"This deal is the best possible scenario we can get," said trainer John Sadler, a native Californian who turns 49 on July 30. "Of all the buyers out there this is the one that’s going to continue to race at Hollywood for the time being. Whether racing will continue after three years is predicated on what happens in the government. Racing must go to the state saying, ”˜We need some help. This is a huge industry. Can we do some things?’ Hopefully, they can get something done in the legislature. The Indian lobby is very strong and that’s what we’ve been battling, unsuccessfully, because we can’t compete with them on dollars."

Ron Ellis sounded a note of optimism.

"They’re going to race at Hollywood for three years, so that’s a lot longer than I thought it was going to be," said the 45-year-old trainer, also a California native. "I’m glad about that. Somebody could have bought it and started doing something right away. It’s a big piece of property so it’s probably going to take that long to get done what the new buyers need to get done. The deal’s got a sunset clause on it, anyway."

If racing ends at Hollywood, its dates would be up for assignment by the California Horse Racing Board.

"That’s going to be tough," Ellis said, "because I would think Santa Anita is going to want more days and Del Mar would want more days. I don’t think they’re going to sink money into Los Alamitos not knowing if they’re going to get the dates or not, and that’s not guaranteed right now.

"I’m not looking forward to Hollywood Park closing. The weather is cooler for horses in the summer and it allows for off-track stabling. It’s hard to fill the races as it is let alone if you take away a couple-thousand stalls."

But barring a miracle, it seems an era will end in 2008.

Said one insider: "Hollywood Park has zero chance of racing after three years."

Sounds like it’s time for the industry to exercise a phrase both Schwarzenegger and the Indians recognize: call in a chip.

The homestretch

While the prognosis for Hollywood Park’s survival is dim, there’s heart-warming news from the Barry Abrams camp. The mountain of a man from Minsk, Russia, has vanquished inoperable throat cancer through rigorous treatment of radiation and chemotherapy.

"The most recent test came up clean," reported Abrams’ wife, Diane. "He’ll have another scan in six months but the doctors feel at this point that they’ve conquered it. Obviously, Barry is so happy, but the doctors told us from Day One that he had to have a positive attitude or forget it and Barry has the most positive attitude of anybody I know. He’s still a little weak. He’s lost 70 pounds so he’s a stick man. He’s such a big guy (6-4, 315 pounds before the cancer treatment) but 70 pounds is a lot for anybody to lose. He wears size 15 shoes. He’s a big man." Not to mention courageous.

”¡ Ellis has targeted October for the return of undefeated male 2-year-old champion Declan’s Moon.

”¡ Tip to Breeders’ Cup Future Book bettors: Don’t waste money on Kela at 20-1 in the Sprint. He’s been retired. Try to get odds on Unfurl The Flag, a speedy California-bred at the top of his game, who probably isn’t listed yet.

”¡ I have one word that would end the threat of terrorism to America and its allies: Truman.