Wise leadership needed to restore Santa Anita

At some point in the near future, Santa Anita Park will have a new owner. Let’s pray that it isn’t old owner Frank Stronach. When Stronach formed Magna Entertainment and began buying up racetracks, and started XpressBet and HRTV, he looked like a winner.

Over time, Stronach has proven that leading with your heart and passion isn’t enough. It also takes equal parts brain and bankroll to succeed. At times Stronach’s decision-making makes it seem he uses Al Davis and Donald Sterling for counsel.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love Santa Anita. I spent three of the best years of my life there. But getting the “Great Race Place” turned around will take extraordinary ownership with deep pockets.

On my dream wish list are two groups that would make good caretakers of the historic Arcadia track. First, would be a leading California Indian tribe that would promise to maintain top-class horse racing in a trade-off with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to install thousands of slot machines.

Schwarzenegger does not have the resources for a horse racing bailout. But he made an offer of badly needed slot revenue with a byproduct of helping an ailing horse industry; it is a win-win scenario.

A second group would be another long shot, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum of Dubai. There are logical reasons for this, too.

Sheikh Mohammed will open the brilliant new Meydan Race Course in January 2010. The centerpiece of the racing will be the Dubai World Cup on March 27. The success of the meet is predicated on top American horses showing up. What better way to recruit talent than to own and operate the best American racetrack that also runs at that time of year, Santa Anita?

Another underlying reason is the track surface. Sheikh Mohammed is committed to installing an all-weather synthetic surface inside Meydan’s massive turf course. If Jess Jackson, owner of Rachel Alexandra, mirrors other U.S. horse owners, that’s not good for Meydan.

If Jackson stays true to his word of avoiding synthetic tracks, Rachel won’t be going to Dubai, and neither will many other U.S. horses. Might Sheikh Mohammed want to take over Santa Anita and stamp his own footprint on American racing?

Whatever happens, the Santa Anita franchise must be restored. It’ll take strong ownership and wise leadership. Look at the New York Yankees. They were down and out for nearly a decade until 1973 when George Steinbrenner took over. It shows greatness can be rebuilt.

Richard Eng’s column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at rich_eng@hotmail.com.

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