Stronach’s Next Move Should Be Consolidation in California

By Bill Finley

If the bottom line were all that mattered, Frank Stronach would never be pulling stallions and broodmares out of Kentucky and moving them to Maryland and California. It’s a poor business decision because you’re bound to make less money breeding in those states than in Kentucky, especially if it means moving A-list sires out of the Bluegrass State. And while it’s true that the bottom line may improve at Stronach’s tracks if and he alone can increase field size by breeding more horses in California and Maryland, his motives seem pure. Primarily in California, he wants to help racing in states he is closely involved with and is willing to do so even if it costs him money.

This should prove to be an important step to help California racing, but it shouldn’t be the only step. Nor is it, when it involves Stronach and his various racing entities, the most logical step. As long as there are two racing circuits, north and south, California is going to continue to have problems that a few extra Adena-bred California-breds can’t come close to solving. There’s way too much racing in California and not nearly enough horses available to fill the cards they try to grind out within the state. That has created a subpar product and offering your customers a subpar product is a surefire way to make sure things never do get fixed.

The Stronach Group owns Santa Anita in the southern half of the state and Golden Gate Fields in the northern half. The only major player in the state that it doesn’t own is Del Mar. That gives Stronach a lot of power and a lot of leeway to shape California racing any way he wants. Though there may be some interference and a move to consolidate would make a lot of people unhappy, if Stronach wants it to happen, it’s going to happen.

The time to do so has come. Having two circuits in California is not working and Stronach needs to fix this.

Consolidation would cause some ancillary problems and create tricky questions that will have to be answered. But the big picture is simple: one state, one circuit, three racetracks, Santa Anita, Golden Gate Fields and Del Mar. The three will work as one collective unit and never will there be any overlap in their racing schedules. The result would be the merger of two horse populations and therefore the biggest fields in the nation, a great betting product every day and soaring betting handle.

And that’s not to say that Golden Gate should be treated as the black sheep of the family when compared to Santa Anita and Del Mar. Golden Gate should get fewer dates than the Southern California tracks, but when it does run, its meet should be comparable to those at Del Mar and Santa Anita. This isn’t going to work if it just becomes an excuse for Bob Baffert, Doug O’Neill, Mike Smith and Flavien Prat to take two months off while a bunch of $7,500 maiden claimers dominate the cards up north. Golden Gate will need to offer a quality product and a healthy amount of graded stakes.

On the flipside, there would need to be some accommodation given to the owners and trainers at Golden Gate who have horses that normally couldn’t compete in the south or at an improved Golden Gate. You’re going to have to card more cheap races at Santa Anita and, perhaps, Del Mar. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. People would rather bet on a field of a dozen $20,000 maiden claimers than a field of five bred-in-the-pink allowance horses topped by 2-5 shot.

Then again, consolidation allows you to eliminate opportunities for some of the least talented and desirable horses on the Northern California circuit because they’ll no longer be needed to fill cards. Sorry, they’re just going to have to go elsewhere, and Turf Paradise is an obvious landing spot.

There are other issues that will have to be resolved. What to do with Los Alamitos, a track where it’s not always clear whether or not they actually want to be in the Thoroughbred business? What do you do with the Northern California fairs, which should not be driven out of business? Does Del Mar want to continue with its fall, Bing Crosby meet–at least in years when it is not hosting the Breeders’ Cup? But these are not impossible problems.

If a Stronach-led movement to consolidate the two racing circuits did happen, a lot of people would not be happy. Obviously, the top Santa Anita-Del Mar trainers are not going to be thrilled to have to ship their horses the 382 miles from Santa Anita to Golden Gate to race when, in the past, all they had to do was lead them out their stalls. And the guy with a small stable at Golden Gate with a handful of slow horses is probably going to feel like the big guys are trying to drive him out of business.

It’s okay to be sympathetic to the problems this would create for some, but only so much so. The only other alternative is for California racing to just keep stop spinning its wheels and never enjoy the renaissance Stronach is hoping for.

Except for Stronach, most people don’t think this way, but it would be nice if some endorsed consolidation because of the bigger picture. Yes, it may not be the best thing for the individual, but it definitely would be the best thing for California racing.

To steal a line from you know who, it’s time to make California racing great again. And this is the only way to make it happen.

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