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Santa Anita owner fireworks?

Many involved in horse racing expect fireworks at the California Horse Racing Board meeting Tuesday at Hollywood Park. That’s mainly because Frank Stronach is scheduled to be there.

Larry Stewart

But concerned individuals may have to wait until the Fourth of July for fireworks. has learned things may be tamer than previously thought.

Rather than being confrontational, Stronach, the chairman of MI Developments, Inc., which owns Santa Anita Park in Arcadia and Golden Gate Fields in the Bay Area, may be taking a cooperative approach and simply appealing to CHRB members that he needs help before he is willing to invest more money into the sport, said a source familiar with the situation.

Stronach has been on the record for years saying he is in favor of deregulation. He wants to race at his tracks whenever he wants. It’s been pretty well established that Stronach would prefer to go up against Hollywood Park, Del Mar or whoever with ideally a three-day race week – and let the best man win.

But there is no magic wand that is going to give Stronach what he wants. Regulations would have to be changed in the state legislature, and that would probably mean expensive lobbying. If Stronach comes to the meeting in the spirit of working with different factions for a common goal – that being to improve horse racing for all concerned – that obviously would be a good thing. “It’s time we all get together and figure out how to fix things,” said Darrell Vienna, Southern California vice president of California Thoroughbred Trainers. “We have to isolate the issues and fine solutions. We have a serious plague here and we need to find a cure.”

One concern is that Stronach, as he often does, will stray off topic and talk in circles during the CHRB meetings. “He needs to express himself on exactly what he wants to do,” said trainer Jim Cassidy.

There is some concern about Stronach’s plans, if any, for Santa Anita’s main track. He funded a recent trip by a half-dozen people to Spain to inspect a surface that features fibers and an underground irrigation system at a facility where polo horses train. This surface has never been used for racing. The group on that trip included Stronach’s top lieutenant, Dennis Mills, Santa Anita track superintendent Richard Tedesco, a veterinarian, Dr. Don Shields, and trainer Doug O ’Neill. Stronach suggested the trip to Spain after the same group — minus Mills plus trainer Mike Mitchell — went to Buenos Aires in early May for a look at the sandy loam surface at the Palermo track there. Tedesco said everyone was impressed with that surface. “You can water it as much as you like, you don’t harrow it and we were told it is very safe for the horses,” he said. “We’d like to find something like that in the U.S. so we wouldn’t have to ship 30,000 cubic yards from overseas.”

Tedesco cautioned that neither trip means a decision has been made about replacing the main track at Santa Anita. But he did admit the trips were a positive sign that something might be done. So did Mills. “I wouldn’t have been sent all the way to Spain if (Stronach) didn’t view the track surface as a serious issue,” he said by phone from his office in the Toronto area. Heavy rain on the current Pro-Ride synthetic surface resulted in five lost racing days during the last Santa Anita meet.

These days, the weather is fine, but there are plenty of other dark clouds hanging over Southern California horse racing. And the mood of those around Clockers’ Corner at Santa Anita has been anything but bright. Rosie Ybarra, the friendly food server at Clockers’ Corner, hears about the fears of uncertainty from horsemen and track employees who step up to her window to place an order. “It’s scary and people are upset,” she said. “This is how people make their living and they don’t know what is going to happen.” Hopefully, after Tuesday, they’ll have a little better idea — one way or the other.

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