The board has been critical of the poor condition of the Santa Anita stable area, which will be home to the Breeders' Cup World Championships in 2008, and first brought the issue up last October. Many of the barns, some built as long ago as 1933, have had little renovation, commissioners have been told, and substandard wiring and plumbing exists there. Low overhanging roofs present a danger to horses and handlers alike, and the backstretch continues to struggle with a rat infestation.
But with the lavish Rick Caruso-designed project potentially at stake, MEC has put off any plans to fix the problems at this time.
On what was expected to be a progress report of the long-awaited backstretch plan, the commissioners sat in stunned silence as Santa Anita counsel Frank DeMarco read a letter from Michael Neuman, MEC's chief executive officer, dated April 26 that was sent to Arcadia city manager William R. Kelly. In it, Neuman says that the Canadian company has never had any plans for upgrading the barns, a position board members feel was clearly at odds with comments made to them as recently as last month by both DeMarco and Santa Anita president Ron Charles.
At the April 19 CHRB meeting, DeMarco is quoted in the letter as telling the board, "Until now we had no definitive plans" for the barn area, adding, "We are now preparing the plan and we'll keep you advised of what we're doing."
In his letter, Neuman told Kelly, "Mr. DeMarco went on to express his opinion as to what a future plan might entail. His statement does not represent the current intent of Santa Anita. It is also clear from comments made by Messers. Charles and DeMarco that there are no plans for new barns. These gentlemen expressed notions as to what new barns might look like however, these musings to do not in any way indicate an intent or formal plan by Santa Anita.
"The (CHRB) has been urging Santa Anita to upgrade the stable area for some time and Santa Anita may at some point in the future decide to make changes in the stable area," Neuman's letter continued. "If, as and when that decision is made, a plan will indeed be made, the proper environmental analysis will be undertaken and the appropriate applications will be made to the appropriate authorities."
Robert Pontelle, a lawyer representing the Westfield shopping mall that neighbors Santa Anita and is fighting The Shops development, said Neuman's letter was sent to the city to assure it that there was no need to undertake a separate environmental impact report that could delay the Caruso project, a point DeMarco did not dispute.
While the news came as a shock to the CHRB, DeMarco drew some chuckles when he said, "apparently ... it is a matter of public record with the city of Arcadia."
"I thought we had been discussing plans for this for some time," vice chairman John Harris said. "Maybe I was hallucinating or something."
"We were told very clearly that Santa Anita was prepared to rebuild 10 barns," chairman Richard Shapiro added. "We had a clear understanding that these barns are uninhabitable" for people or horses. "They are rat infested and they are not safe."
Harris later qualified Shapiro's remarks by saying, "(The barns) are badly in need of repairs. We shouldn't say they are uninhabitable" since they are being inhabited.
Charles did not attend the meeting.
Shapiro said Magna officials told him the new barns would be the same as those at the company's Palm Meadows training center in Florida after he toured that facility with MEC chairman Frank Stronach and others.
"Since Mr. Stronach bought the racetrack (in 1998), he has promised a new barn area," Shapiro said.
"I hope that you convey to Mr. Neuman our dismay and disappointment," commissioner Marie Moretti told DeMarco.
In other news, Richard Bon Smith, assistant executive director of the CHRB, said that the board's $10.8 million budget for the 2007-08 fiscal year, zeroed out by the State Senate budget sub-committee two weeks ago in a political dispute, was approved in full by the assembly's equivalent sub-committee. A joint conference committee will take up the issue of the agency's funding later this month or in early June, Smith said. There was no comment from the board.
The board approved a combined summer fair meet for Solano and Sonoma counties this summer. Under the plan, Solano would host the first five days of the "Sonoma Solano Wine Country Racing" meet in Vallejo from July 11-15, followed by 18 days of racing at the Santa Rosa facility July 18-Aug. 6. The unique concept was enthusiastically endorsed by the board. Jim Moore, representing Sonoma County, said negotiations are going on with one of the region's major wineries to help host the event.
The board also approved the posting of all stewards minutes on the CHRB Web site as a public record.
The commission deferred until next month action on renewing an agreement with the Jockey's Guild Health and Welfare Program. It also decided to wait until its June meeting to decide on a proposal from the Thoroughbred Owners of California to provide support for retirement horse farms by setting aside .3 of net purses earned by Thoroughbreds racing in the state to a fund called the California Retirement Management Account.