Dodging Bullets

by Ed Meyer

posted on October 30, 2008 in General Discussion, News | No Comments >>

Inquiring minds want to know about Hollywood Park.

Is it still a horse race track or just an excuse to water the grass until the bulldozers arrive? Will the best drivers here be jockeys or guys in cement mixers?

Are barns to become bungalows, the home stretch main street?

Will today’s opener of the annual 40-day autumn meeting be the last time there is such a day here?

Economic realities, the favorite phrase these days of a clueless corporate America, have long been known at Hollywood Park. In 2005, the Churchill Downs owners of the fabled racing venue stood up at a news conference, whined about the horrible injustice of California’s refusing to give them slot machines to further line their pockets, and announced they had sold Hollywood Park.

They took the money and ran, making way for new corporate types with a different take-the-money-and-run scheme. The Hollywood Park buyer was Bay Meadows Land Co., the Northern California group that has a real estate division and a racing division. The racing division was put in charge, while the real estate division walked outside and started to visualize lot sizes and traffic patterns.

From that moment, horse racing at Hollywood Park was on borrowed time.

But a funny thing has happened on the way to condo heaven. They are still racing. And, if you are a betting person — as are most who follow horse racing — your best wager is that the bug boys will outnumber the bricklayers for several years to come.

Coincidently, that’s because of the current economic realities.

The plan was to build condos, but building condos right now is like an old claiming horse in a six-furlong sprint. It hasn’t got a chance. In 2005, the “best use” of the Hollywood Park land was to develop it, bring in the drywall and the painted fences and 2 1/2-car garages, divide the huge parcel by 100 lots or so, get a half-million for each, and present big bonus checks to all the top executives.

Now, for the moment at least, it turns out the “best use” of the land is to do what has always been done with it: stable thoroughbred race horses, train them, and race them for the entertainment and wagering interests of the general public. What a concept.

True, most of the staff at Hollywood Park exists on life support. There are no guarantees past the end of next summer’s meeting, which annually precedes Del Mar’s meeting of turf and surf. But only the most pessimistic would think that racing at Hollywood Park won’t continue on past next summer, seeing that the alternative involves huge loans and costly construction, and the unrealistic home prices needed to pay for all that.

The keeper of the flame — make that the pilot light — is Jack Liebau, Hollywood Park president, who is from the Bay Meadows racing division, not the real estate side.

Liebau has owned and raced horses for more than 30 years. He got both his undergraduate and law degrees at Stanford, as well as his interest in the ponies.

“I suspect my school work would have been a lot better had I not discovered Bay Meadows,” Liebau says. “I think I dragged some of my classmates along with me.”

He spent much of his career as a tax and business lawyer in Los Angeles, until 1992, when he was asked if he would run Bay Meadows for about four months, until they shut it down and broke it into housing plots.

It was such short duty that Liebau signed on. And they did, indeed, shut down Bay Meadows to make it into real estate. This June. The training facilities stayed open until Oct. 15, just 15 days ago.

So, there is precedent for Bay Meadows Land Co. to break ground long after it has bought it. Liebau knows that and is paid nicely not to say it.

“My instructions are to run racing at Hollywood Park as though it will continue indefinitely,” he says. He adds that any specifics on commitments to race beyond next summer are “above my pay grade.”

Liebau, who was president of Santa Anita when the Breeders’ Cup was held there in 2003, called last weekend’s event “spectacular” and said that the people at the Arcadia track “did themselves proud.”

He said he hoped that Hollywood Park would “get a bounce” from the local Breeders’ Cup success and said there may be evidence of that already, with late nominations for major races going from three or four last year to 21 this year.

So, assume this is not the last autumn meeting at Hollywood Park. Also assume that sometime in the future, the list of track promotions will feature things such as: Wrecking Ball Night, Caterpillar Night, and No Interest for a Year Mortgage Night.

Then worry.