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Equestrian Center Optimistic in Spite of Its Huge Debts

February 21, 1985|DEAN MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

Since its opening three years ago, the $15-million Los Angeles Equestrian Center at Griffith Park has earned a reputation as one of the finest of its kind in the nation.

Its location on easily accessible public land, the wide range of facilities, the classes it offers and its proximity to more than 50 miles of trails in Griffith Park distinguish the center from all others, say horse enthusiasts throughout the United States.

Yet the 70-acre center, built on land leased by the City of Los Angeles to Burbank-based Equestrian Centers of America Inc., has lost $7.5 million since it opened and remains only partly completed.

Last fall the beleaguered center filed for protection from its creditors under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, became embroiled in an acrimonious multimillion-dollar legal battle with its principal lender, Gibraltar Savings of Beverly Hills, and fell thousands of dollars behind in tax payments to the state and in rental payments to the City of Los Angeles.

Retail Space Vacant

Thousands of square feet of retail space at the center sit vacant; several practice rings remain only partly constructed; a planned public restaurant has yet to open, and the deficit-ridden, members-only Riding and Polo Club now serves lunch to the public in hopes of increasing revenue and attracting new members.

Dreams of a trailside health club and fitness center, athletic facilities, specialty shops and a convention lodge remain unrealized.

"I think our only sin was that we were optimistic," Equestrian Centers of America President J. Albert Garcia said, reflecting on the mounting losses. "We moved fast because we had a lot of doubters and we had a lot of pressure when we first started. . . . We built before the income stream got caught up with us."

Garcia's optimism, remarkably enough, prevails today. Despite the center's problems, it has been business as usual, and the equestrian community of Southern California and the City of Los Angeles continue to praise it in glowing terms.

For four days ending Sunday, thousands of horse enthusiasts attended the California Professional Horsemen's Assn. Benefit Horse Show, the second major show at the center in as many weeks.

The center also received a significant vote of confidence from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Los Angeles late last month when Judge James R. Dooley agreed to give center operators four more months to prepare a reorganization plan.

But the center has never been an easy venture for Garcia and his partners. Situated on land in Griffith Park bordered by Burbank and Glendale, it was built in 1981 amid protests and legal challenges from nearby Burbank residents who feared it would create congestion, noise and odors and would become a busy training stable for thoroughbred racehorses.

Those initial problems, however, were mild compared to the turmoil that surrounded the center in 1984.

In May, Garcia parted ways with Patrick Terrail, founder of Ma Maison restaurant in West Los Angeles, who was hired a year earlier as "just the right man" to manage the "exclusive" Riding and Polo Club restaurant and other food services.

Garcia said Terrail, who served chilled Champagne and Ma Maison box lunches at horse shows, lost $500,000 in five months of the restaurant's operation. Terrail has denied those charges and said Garcia has not paid him "one nickel" for his work. Terrail declined to quote specific figures but insisted he earned a profit for the center.

In June the center was sued for $500,000 by Arthur Gottfried, a Sherman Oaks horseman who runs the livery and horse rental operations. Gottfried charged that center officials, apparently eager to run the operations themselves during the Olympics, tried to back out of a three-year lease with him "so as to gain substantial profits" during the busy summer season.

An attorney for Gottfried said the horseman, who still runs the livery and horse rentals, expects to reach an out-of-court settlement. A spokesman for the center confirmed that the two sides are talking.

In August, center executives looked on bitterly as attention during the Olympics focused on equestrian competition at the Santa Anita Race Track in Arcadia and Fairbanks Ranch in San Diego County. The center was bypassed by Los Angeles Olympics organizers, a major setback in terms of revenue and exposure.

Garcia said the Olympics "would have had a materially different effect" on the center. "Everyone would have been very conscious of our existence," he said.

"Gibraltar and everyone else who had a peripheral--let alone primary--involvement would have been up taking kudos and announcing that they were associated with it and would have seen that we got the tools to finish it."

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