Sunday, October 17, 2010
A Lot Wrong With This Picture
I woke up to rain. It's not supposed to be raining in Southern California, not until after Christmas, but then racing in Southern California is not supposed to be in the doldrums, either. It was called the Land of Milk and Honey by Harry Silbert, Bill Shoemaker's agent. The milk has curdled and the honey has turned to something that is the same color as honey. There used to be an argument, a silly debate really, about which was better, California racing or New York racing. Now California and New York are tied for second place, and there is no No. 1. There may not be a No. 1 ever again.
Somebody told me an incredible stat the other day. In 2010-11, the track with the most racing days in Southern California will be Hollywood Park. Not only will Hollywood Park race the most days in these two years, it will be open more days than Santa Anita and Del Mar combined. Santa Anita and Del Mar are supposed to be the going concerns, and Hollywood Park, for several years now, has been telling the world that it wants out of the racing game. If a developer came along, claiming to know something that nobody else knows and growing greenbacks out of both ears, Hollywood Park would dump racing in a heartbeat. The two remaining tracks would dice up all those dates, and then the sport would really show us how more-is-less works.
Santa Anita was already in trouble by the time Stronach took over late in 1998. The Strub family, stung by some outside business investments, had had enough, and the new owners were an investment group that was all over the map. They didn't have a clue about race tracks, and must have kissed the hem of Frank Stronach's frock when he walked through the door. These were strange times for race tracks vis-a-vis casinos. R.D. Hubbard, who ran Hollywood Park, knew that you couldn't thrive if you had one without the other, and so did Tom Meeker, of Churchill Downs, but they were in the minority, and even considered heretics. Meeker came to California, made a speech about the symbiosis of slot machines and horse betting, and the gasps could be hard all the way to Louisville. In the Q & A that followed, pinning Meeker to the stake was the mood that prevailed.
Churchill Downs, of course, ended up owning Hollywood Park, but I never got the feeling that their hearts were in it. California governors came and went, all of them enamored with the Indians and their gambling endeavors, none of them taking the time to give racing a tumble. Off-track betting, just as it had years before in New York, arrived with a bad business plan, if there was a plan at all, and now the on-track revenue in California has been cannibalized, all the way down to the bone. Californians will elect another governor in a few weeks. We will either get a woman who's richer than Croesus, or a retread from the long ago. Racing doesn't appear to have a path to either candidate's door.
A year ago, attending the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita was nirvana. They were preparing to host their second straight Breeders' Cup, hopes were high and the place was festooned with banners. This year, Oak Tree, forced to relocate to Hollywood Park, doesn't have a Breeders' Cup and doesn't have a prayer. Interest is at low ebb. Crowds are abysmal, except the day Zenyatta ran. The Oak Tree meet will run right into Hollywood Park's regular fall meet, and if you think you've seen small crowds, stick around.
The racing board isn't even meeting this month, an odd thing for an industry in peril. For the horseplayers around Christmas, a lump of coal in their stocking--a significant increase in the takeout. By then the glow from the movie about Secretariat will be long gone. There's more high-profile exposure for racing to come--"Luck," an HBO series about denizens of the track. Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte head the cast. Those who have seen a rough cut of the first episode give it high marks. "It's enormously accessible to non-horseracing people," said Michael Lombardo, programming president of HBO. But "Luck," filmed mostly at Santa Anita, will not debut until September of 2011. Just in time to give the next Oak Tree-at-Hollywood Park season a boost.