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Fair Board Ducks Picking the Winner in Race to Run Track

Times Staff Writer

Faced with an array of lawyers and high-powered racing interests Tuesday, the Del Mar Fair Board ducked the task of recommending one of the six competitors to run the Del Mar Race Track for the next 20 years.

The board, appointed by the governor to oversee operations of the state-owned fairgrounds, listened patiently to presentations by the six groups seeking the lucrative lease, but stopped short of choosing one. Instead, each member will submit written comments to the state Race Track Leasing Commission, a six-member body composed equally of Fair Board directors and state officials. The commission is expected to make a final selection in a few months.

Fair Board Chairman Robert Spanjian outlined “guidelines” that appeared to rule out some of the bidders because they included recommendations that no racing dates be added to the existing 43-day season. But Director Bob Vise pointed out that all of the applicants’ proposals appeared to be flexible enough to meet Spanjian’s criteria and suggested that no bidders be excluded.

The expected Fair Board vote was shelved, but the directors will submit their comments to the commission by the week’s end. A subcommittee of the commission meets next Tuesday to discuss the race track bid award.

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Director Bill Cleator was admonished by Spanjian when he commented that the current operators “have done an outstanding job” and that he would “have a real difficulty” in selecting another operator in preference to the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, which has been operating the track 18 years.

Director Brooks Parry said she would oppose a lease period of more than 20 years, although two of the proposals call for 40-year leases. Director Alan Royster said he would like to “leave the door open” to expanding the number of racing days if financial considerations appear to require more revenue.

The Fair Board has gone on record in the past for construction of a grandstand to replace the existing 50-year-old building, which has been ruled structurally unsafe by state engineers. At least one of the bidders proposed a $20-million renovation of the grandstand, and several others questioned whether the racing revenue would be sufficient to finance a new structure, estimated to cost $75 million to $100 million.

The proposal submitted by Ogden-Nederlander was, by far, the most flamboyant, calling for the present 43-day thoroughbred racing season and an annual schedule of 40 concerts. The plan, Ogden officials contend, would bring in $86 million over the 20-year life of the lease--funds that could be used to improve the aging fairground buildings.

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Included in the Ogden-Nederlander proposal is a pledge to build a $72-million grandstand, to be turned over to the state at the end of the lease in 2010.

However, the Ogden group has come under fire for another of its projects--a proposal to operate an experimental toxic waste-burning plant on Torrey Pines Mesa near UC San Diego--and for its performance at the Orange County Fairgrounds, where it has sponsored rock concerts that have engendered noise complaints from neighbors.

The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club bid to operate the track during the racing season and conduct satellite wagering from other California tracks differs little from the present franchise terms under which the Thoroughbred Club has operated the track since 1970.

Joe Harper, general manager of the Thoroughbred Club, stressed the group’s performance during its 18 years as leaseholder of the state-owned track. During that period, he said, the nonprofit organization has brought the Del Mar track from an unrated and unpopular facility to the fifth-ranked track in the nation. During the 18 years, the track handle (amount bet) has increased 300%, and the attendance has grown 100%, Harper said.

Earl Scheib, owner of a string of discount auto-painting shops, retained former state attorney general Evelle Younger and attorney Richard Craigo to represent him in his bid. Scheib, a horse breeder, is critical of the existing management for not doing enough to benefit horsemen. He also opposes construction of a new grandstand, arguing instead that a $20-million renovation of the 50-year-old structure would be enough.

John Brunetti, owner of Florida’s Hialeah Park, proposed an ambitious program of marketing the Del Mar track to increase revenues, but stressed that the track is not now profitable enough to support construction of a new grandstand.

Patrick Flavin, operator of the Maywood Park track and chairman of American Data Group, proposed turning Del Mar into “one big television studio” and introducing a 90-day harness racing meet at the track off season.

Flavin said he would retain present Thoroughbred Club management and estimated that a $15-million grandstand improvement and $10-million upgrading of other fairground facilities would be sufficient.

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Another group, composed of Boston CPA Arnold London and Encino dentist Dr. Leon Bloom, proposed to lease the entire fairgrounds, not just the track, and conduct year-round activities there. The Bloom-London proposal calls for use of private capital to upgrade the grandstand and fairgrounds, pointing out the tax benefits to a private group and the benefit to the state of receiving tax revenues on the private investments.


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