Another Going Down?

by Ed Meyer

posted on December 23, 2008 in News | No Comments >>

Golden Gate Fields, the last major racetrack in Northern California, could be putting up a for-sale sign as its financially struggling parent company is forced to pay off big loans by the end of next year.

The unknown status of the racetrack has stoked a decades-long local debate over the fate of the prime piece of real estate along the Albany waterfront.

Magna Entertainment informed investors and the Securities and Exchange Commission earlier this month that it has agreed to a plan that would pay off debts totaling tens of millions of dollars, including using “commercially reasonable efforts to sell or enter into joint ventures in respect of its assets, including its core racetrack assets.”

Golden Gate Fields is one of the company’s 10 thoroughbred or standardbred racetracks – including Santa Anita Park, Florida’s Gulfstream Park and Maryland’s Pimlico Race Course, which hosts the second jewel of the Triple Crown every May.

It’s unclear whether the Albany track would be among those put on the block, and if so, be sold as a racetrack business or simply as real estate.

Magna officials did not return calls seeking comment. The company filed paperwork required for unscheduled corporate changes with the SEC on Dec. 4th.

For about 60 years, horses have circled the track at Golden Gate Fields as those in the grandstands placed bets on their favorite ponies.

Some locals say it’s a historic icon and a financial benefit for local coffers, the last holdover from the heyday of Bay Area horse racing.

Others say the track is a waste of space – an eyesore on a breathtakingly beautiful shoreline.

“When I was a kid here, the stands were packed,” recalled Albany Mayor Robert Lieber, adding that these days, given the economy and entertainment options available for consumers, “horse racing is probably not viable in Northern California on top of everything else.”

Golden Gate Fields, bought by Magna in 1999, sits on 80 acres along the bay.

In 2002, Magna proposed developing part of the land for retail, entertainment and lodging, but by 2006, abandoned the idea after facing community opposition to a mall on the site.

“They discovered that’s a very difficult thing to do in Albany,” said Albany City Councilman Farid Javandel.

Reports at the time questioned the fate of the racetrack, but Javandel noted that the track has sold twice in the last few decades and remains a racing venue.

Robert Hartman, the track’s general manager, said the track makes a profit.

“I don’t think this is anything new,” he said of the speculation about a sale. “This has been going on for a while. Magna is looking at all of their assets to figure out how to make the company work better. From my standpoint all I can do is make Golden Gate Fields as profitable as it can be.”

Hartman said 2009 will be the most profitable year ever due in large part to the August closure of the Bay Meadows track in San Mateo and the subsequent boost from 127 racing days to 181 this season.

“I think everybody in the country is concerned about everything going on. Not just horse racing. Banks, automakers are in financial crises. Things aren’t good for anybody right now,” said Jerry Hollendorfer, a successful Bay Area trainer who co-owns most of his horses. “I don’t think anybody can assume that anything is for sure, but Golden Gate Fields is a profitable venture, so if it is sold, I would think it would be to somebody who would continue to do business here.”

A recent deal announced by Magna would ultimately put the company in the hands of Frank Stronach, an executive at both Magna and its current parent company, MI Developments Inc.

Stronach “is the leading breeder in the country and loves thoroughbred racing,” Hartman said. “He will do everything in his power to keep horse racing alive.”

Albany city officials, however, are not willing to bet one way or the other.

In May, they hired a consulting firm, Fern Tiger Associates, to assess community views on shoreline property and to develop a process to decide what to do with the site in the future – whether the racetrack stays or goes.

Any new zoning on the land would require approval by voters in Albany.

“I think most people in Albany, and I count myself among them, are looking for a balance,” Javandel said. “We see space for both open space and some sort of revenue generation.”

The consultants recommended to hold community meetings to understand what residents would most likely support down the road.

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