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California Horse Racing Saved By Wealthy Lunatic

Frank Stronach has been a well-known lunatic in the horse racing industry for many years. But today he added considerably to that reputation with his erratic performance before the California Horse Racing Board.

In the space of 20 minutes, the Austrian-born racetrack owner said he would not host the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita this fall, then changed his mind and offered to host the meet after all. Racing saved! Stronach crazier than ever!


Some background. Last month, Stronach used the bankruptcy process to cancel his lease with Oak Tree Racing Association, a non-profit group that has been running the fall meet at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia for 41 years.

Since then, Oak Tree has been trying to renegotiate a deal to run races this fall. But without any positive signals from Stronach, the non-profit had been forced to contemplate a move to either Hollywood Park or Del Mar. That would have left Santa Anita empty this fall -- which would be very bad news for just about everybody in horse racing.

The CHRB, which regulates racing dates, has been urging Stronach to work out some sort of deal with Oak Tree. But at today's meeting, Stronach announced that his board had decided it doesn't make business sense to keep Oak Tree around.

"We don't want to have a tenant in our house," Stronach said. "It doesn't fit the plans in the long term."

The problem with that is the dates belong to Oak Tree, not to Santa Anita. So Stronach is  playing a game of chicken. He's willing to close Santa Anita in the fall and give up $3.5 million to $4 million a year. His bet is that the CHRB can't afford to let Santa Anita sit empty forever, and that he will ultimately be granted more dates. When that happens, he won't have to share the proceeds with a tenant.

Stronach, 77, is no fan of the whole regulatory framework of horse racing, and argued today that "If you have a store, you ought to be able to open the store whenever you think you'll have the most customers." Since we're talking about gambling, it doesn't really work that way, but that didn't stop him from issuing a jeremiad against government interference in free enterprise.

After a couple of hours of that, the CHRB chair, Keith Brackpool, concluded that the Oak Tree lease is "like the 'Dead Parrot' sketch in Monty Python -- it truly is dead." But then Mace Siegel, a revered thoroughbred owner, suggested that Stronach would be willing to take Oak Tree back for one more year.

Though he had just said quite the opposite, Stronach turned around and agreed to the deal. "I would commit we would have this year, and then not have it anymore. No problem," he said.

The Oak Tree folks went into a huddle, and came back a few minutes later and agreed to take it. Oak Tree founder Jack Robbins took a few more shots at Stronach: "I know you're bored with me, but I can't see kicking that money aside," he said.

The sport of kings, ladies and gentlemen, or perhaps, just the sport of ornery old men who can't stand each other. Long term, horse racing is in deep trouble, and this one-year reprieve at Santa Anita won't change that. But at least you'll be able to see the ponies this fall.