Friday, June 19, 2009

Down The Stretch They Come

LA Sketchbook's Steve Greenberg in LA Observed

Los Angeles Times wrote recently that Hollywood Park racetrack could soon give way to a $2 billion real estate development.

While rumors of the demise of Southern California’s major horseracing venues have been making the rounds for several years, this time it might actually happen. Given the state of the economy it’s no surprise that
Hollywood Park ownership would rather invest in a development project that could bring big returns, as opposed to sinking more money into a sport that continues to decline.

Inglewood City Council on June 3 approved the final environmental impact report for a proposed development on the Hollywood Park property, thus replacing the racetrack with a retail center.

The next step is for the council to approve an ordinance for the development agreement, and that is s
cheduled to happen on July 8.

I watch this with interest, not only because Hollywood Park was where I had my first “real” career job out of college, but because the closure of the 71-year-old racetrack would be another nail in the coffin for the sport in Southern California. Or, it could mean that the horse racing industry will try to stay alive by looking elsewhere to fill the void. And if it does, then Fairplex Park in Pomona could be a possible candidate.

For that to happen, the track probably would likely have to be expanded from its current 5/8-mile configuration, to a main-track oval of at least a mile. And the grandstand, which was constructed in 1933, would have to be rebuilt. Of course, that takes money, not only to expand the track, but also to raze or relocate the current structures that stand within the footprint of the bigger track.

I suspect that if the industry wants thoroughbred racing to continue in Southern California, it will find the bucks to construct what would essentially be a brand new racetrack. If not, then the sport will probably continue its slow decline, trusting fans will still visit the old venues at Santa Anita and Del Mar, plus the Los Angeles County Fair meeting at Fairplex thrown in every September (recently shortened to 15 days). Without something to attract new fans and rejuvenate the faithful followers, I don’t know that there would be enough to keep horse racing alive. A new track and grandstand could make Fairplex Park the premier racing venue in California.

But would that be enough to revive horse racing? Hollywood Park had to cancel a day of racing earlier this season, and the track is now running four days a week instead of the traditional five. Del Mar and Fairplex Park have had reduced the number of days they race, too. Santa Anita is reportedly in bankruptcy protection, and the track is for sale.

Since I haven’t worked at Fairplex in many years, I don’t know if the Fair Association even wants to expand the track to a mile anymore. If it makes good business sense, then I’m sure they’ll consider it. But it will take OPM (other people’s money) to make it happen, and I have no idea if it’s a priority. The investment will have to come from the various sources throughout the horse racing industry. And it won’t be cheap.

The idea of expanding Fairplex Park to a mile has been tossed around for years – as far back as 1995, when I still worked there. Back in 1985, the track was expanded from one-half-mile to 5/8-mile, which was fine for the Fair meeting, but not for a regular horse racing season like those held at the major racetracks. So engineers and architects plotted out the new track configuration, and experts estimated the construction costs at around $10 million. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same project today is 10 times that price, if not more. Just a few years ago, Fairplex Park officials presented a new expansion plan to the California Horse Racing Board.

The cost was the prohibitive factor years ago, and there wasn’t interest from the industry or other investors to add another racetrack to the Southern California circuit back then, either. Nor was there a need. The industry had other priorities than to spend money to expand a perfectly good track that was only used for a few weeks of racing every September. Without outside interest in building a new mile-long track at Fairplex and granting the racetrack additional racing dates, the Fair Association considered dropping the sport completely.

But horse racing during the Fair has remained a money-maker, even with the limited schedule and bullring track. Even with today’s continued downward spiral in popularity, I assume horse racing still contributes greatly to the bottom line. And so the idea of expanding the track probably still has merit. Only now, it appears that it’s the horse racing industry that needs Fairplex Park, rather than the other way around.

Last year, Blood-Horse magazine speculated that if Hollywood Park should close, the Inglewood track’s dates could be moved to Pomona. The article noted that legislation was in the works to provide financial assistance for a proposed Fairplex Park expansion plan.

No racetrack will ever relive the pre-satellite wagering days when the grandstands would be packed for horse racing, but the Pomona track has an incredible advantage over other tracks in reaching out to potential new fans. There are tens of thousands of people on the grounds every day during the Los Angeles County Fair, and usually more than 100,000 every weekend day. All they have to do is go inside to watch the horses run. The wagers will follow.

Seems simple enough, but the current configuration of the facility doesn’t exactly say “come on in.” But back in 1933, the people who built the place were probably trying to keep the masses out instead of bringing them in. They had no trouble filling the house and had to turn people away.

But trends change. This time around, architects and industry experts need to take a careful look at their audience and the state of their sport. Horse racing needs to reinvent itself if it wants to survive. Some traditions are fine, but this is an activity that’s gasping for air. It needs a big shot of something strong.

The architectural design of the physical plant can make Fairplex Park the boost the industry needs -- an entertainment destination that separates itself from the racetrack grandstands throughout Southern California that were built in the 1930s. It needs to be so unique that it is a lure for those people already on the fairgrounds, but also for anyone looking for a leisure-time alternative. Done right, it would be more than a racetrack. It would be the entertainment anchor to support the addition of other developments at Fairplex like restaurants and retail outlets, and it would boost the Fair, NHRA drag races and the other events at the complex.

Whatever direction this goes, the idea of expanding the Fairplex Park track is either a really great one, or an incredibly bad one. There’s no middle ground (unless, of course, it really is done with other people's money). It would be a risky move, but it might be more of a risk for the horse racing industry to not do something like this.

So before I get too much farther ahead of myself, especially in this economy, let’s see what happens next in Inglewood. These things never seem to happen fast, but Southern California horse racing needs a big stretch run before it gets clipped at the finish line…or even worse, comes up lame around the turn.

Stay tuned.

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