Santa Anita Braces For Possible Power Outage

Alex Furer's pager went off early Thursday morning and he knew who was calling. It was Southern California Edison, the utility giant that provides power to Santa Anita racetrack.

The message sent to the track's plant superintendent informed him that California had, once again, entered a Stage 3 emergency -- when the state's power reserves dip below 1.5 percent.

He was dreading another call from the same company later in the day, warning him that a rolling blackout was a mere 10 minutes away.

That call never came.

"We had to go into alert mode," said Furer. "Luckily, it was a false alarm. "

Residents and businesses alike have been bracing for those random rolling blackouts for months but have managed to escape the possibility of losing electricity for as much as an hour at a time.

On Thursday, the state came perilously close to darkness as a strong storm pounded the coastal areas and energy was gobbled up. Never before had the threat been this real.

For California racetracks, the state's electricity crisis has been a day-to-day affair. The utility companies haven't disclosed their plans for rolling blackouts. All businesses can do, like Santa Anita, is wait for that call and then go into action.

"Although we've lived with this threat for many months, we are confident things would run smoothly in the event of a rolling blackout," Furer added. "But this is something we can't control."

The track does receive a reduced rate from Edison on the condition Santa Anita officials will lower the amount of energy used or shut down power altogether. If Santa Anita doesn't abide by Edison rules, the track will be hit with a stiff fine.

If a rolling blackout should occur, that 10-minute warning given by Edison only gives the track a small window of time.

Track officials said racing wouldn't stop, although the tote boards would be shut down. The wagering information, which is controlled by computers, wouldn't be lost. Furer said there are about 22 tote machines that could be up and running during a blackout.

Escalators and elevators would be immediately turned off before the blackout to ensure no one gets hurt or trapped. The track is equipped with an emergency generator that would provide lighting.

After the entire Santa Anita staff is informed about the blackout, a general announcement would be made to the public. Although fans are aware of the energy crisis, some say they don't trust the track's betting system.

"I don't want to be here if the power goes out," said 57-year-old racing enthusiast Michael Wilmington, who comes to the track about twice a week. "When you have money at stake, you don't want anything to happen."

Most Californians will agree the state's new experiment -- a deregulated energy market -- has failed. Under the new system, utilities companies such as Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric sold off their power plants and agreed to buy electricity from wholesale providers.

Those suppliers have jacked up rates for a number of reasons, most notably the rising price of natural gas. But Edison and PG&E have been placed under a rate cap, which doesn't allow them to pass on the price increases to their customers. Both companies have said they will have to file for bankruptcy if rates aren't bumped higher.

Whether the rate cap should be lifted and how much residents and businesses should pay are being debated by state legislators and utility companies.

The higher costs may force some smaller businesses to close shop temporarily if not for good. Santa Anita may never have to deal with that option but the costs are expected to be exorbitant nonetheless. As long as there is limited supply and great demand, California residents and businesses will continue to live in the shadow of the energy crisis.

"We need some type of regulation back," Furer said. "There are people taking advantage of this situation and profiting heavily from it. "