TOC: No Choice But to Evaluate Options

by Tom LaMarra and Jack Shinar

The Thoroughbred Owners of California, faced with the possibility of losing a major racetrack partner, has been discussing its options for the future given ongoing rumors Hollywood Park may be sold and no longer offer horse racing.

Churchill Downs Inc. owns Hollywood Park, which races from April through late July, and November through late December. The company's intentions for the facility have become a topic for speculation given the rumors and CDI policy.

Hollywood Park president Rick Baedeker had no comment and referred questions to CDI director of communications Julie Koenig Loignon, who said the publicly traded company doesn't comment on rumors. She said CDI wouldn't comment unless a deal was in place.

TOC president Drew Couto, who was at Hollywood Park March 16, said the TOC for some time has been mapping a strategy for racing dates and facilities. The Hollywood Park rumors have been on and off for some time, while the status of the two major Northern California tracks, Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields, has come into question from time to time.

Couto said he couldn't comment on the plan should Hollywood Park cease to exist. But he did say the TOC, which negotiates purse contracts with California tracks, "definitely has plans for what a new calendar would look like and what options we have."

Couto said the CDI no-tell policy "forces you to independently evaluate your options and make your own plans." He said TOC board members are concerned the no-comment answer is a way of "stiff-arming" them at a time when they need answers to properly prepare for the short term and long term.

"They are the least informative of our track partners," Couto said of CDI. "They provide the least amount of information. As you can imagine, my board doesn't appreciate it."

CDI is to release its fourth-quarter earnings report for 2004 at the close of business March 16. A teleconference on the report is set for the morning of March 17. The initial release merely said CDI would seek to "maximize" its Hollywood Park asset.

CDI purchased Hollywood Park for $140 million in 1999. The facility, which joins Del Mar and Santa Anita Park as part of California's "big three" circuit, hosted the first Breeders' Cup in 1984.

In recent years, there was speculation CDI might move the Hollywood Park dates to a new facility in Southern California. Now, there's talk of leasing the dates to Santa Anita or perhaps Los Alamitos, which several years ago dropped harness racing and went to year-round Quarter Horse racing.

Los Alamitos has a five-eighths-mile track that would have to be enlarged to accommodate a major Thoroughbred meet. It has no turf course.

The Hollywood Park speculation comes at a time when the TOC and other groups are concerned about the possible loss of training time at Fairplex Park in Southern California. Though the Los Angeles County Fair plans to maintain its September Thoroughbred meet, it's looking at plans for a four-month fall harness meet that would displace Thoroughbreds that train there year-round.