By Ray Paulick

The Paulick Report has learned that the Thoroughbred Owners of California has submitted an “expression of interest” to buy Santa Anita Park, which is in the process of being sold as part of the bankruptcy proceedings involving the track's current owner, Magna Entertainment. According to sources, TOC's plans would be to form a non-profit company to own and operate the Arcadia, Calif., track that averaged nearly 33,000 in daily on-track attendance as recently as 1985 but sees about one-fourth of that number today.

Drew Couto, president of TOC, confirmed Wednesday night that the owners' organization has filed an intention to bid on Santa Anita but would not offer any additional comment. It is not known if there are individual investors behind the proposed bid or if the funding would be institutional.

The paperwork filed with the expression of interest to bid on Santa Anita is only the first step in the process. TOC will then have to be ruled as a “qualified” bidder after Miller Buckfire and Co., the bankruptcy specialist firm handling the sale of the Magna tracks, reviews its application. The deadline for expressing an interest in bidding was May 27, and formal bids must be submitted by July 31. If necessary, an auction on the properties may take place in September. (Click here for more information on bankruptcy bidding processes.)

There have been many rumors circulating through Southern California that another bidder for the track represents Chinese interests. Internet entrepreneur Halsey Minor has also expressed an interest in acquiring some of the tracks through the purchase of Magna Entertainment's accumulated debt. MI Developments, which like Magna Enterainment was a spinoff of the automotive giant Magna International, submitted a “stalking horse bid” for a number of the tracks in the original bankruptcy filing in March. Since then, however, MI Developments, the largest shareholder in Magna Entertainment, has backed away under the threat of litigation from many of its institutional shareholders.

There are profound fears in the California Thoroughbred community that if Santa Anita is sold to a development company, racing in the Golden State would soon be extinct. Bay Meadows racetrack in Northern California has been torn down for future development by the Bay Meadows Land Co., which also owns Hollywood Park, where plans for mixed-use development could kill live racing at the end of this year. If Santa Anita is sold for development purposes, the only major track remaining in Southern California would be the  Del Mar, which races from mid-July to early September. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has listed Del Mar, which is owned by the state of California, as a potential property the financially troubled state may attempt to sell.

A successful bid by TOC on Santa Anita Park could go a long way toward preserving the California racing industry.

Magna Entertainment also owns Gulfstream Park in Florida, PImlico and Laurel in Maryland, Golden Gate Fields in Northern California, Lone Star Park in Texas, Remington Park in Oklahoma, Thistledown in Ohio, and Portland Meadows in Oregon.

Santa Anita Park, which opened in December 1934, was purchased by Magna chairman Frank Stronach for $126 million in 1998.

TOC was incorporated in 1993 and eventually replaced the California Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association as the recognized organization representing horse owners in the state.

Copyright © 2009, The Paulick Report

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