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Hopefuls Hit the Home Stretch in Race for Del Mar Lease

February 05, 1989|ERIC BAILEY | Times Staff Writer

For nearly two decades, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club has comfortably presided over the annual 43-day horse-racing meet at the famed track, where turf meets surf.

Manned by such notables as supermarket magnate John Mabee, former North County Congressman Clair Burgener and Democratic Party bigwig Robert Strauss, the nonprofit organization has carefully steered the Del Mar track from its scandal-plagued days of the late 1960s to a position today near the forefront of American horse racing.

But that reign is being challenged by two feisty contenders for a new 20-year lease on the track. Both the Ogden-Nederlander partnership and John Brunetti, operator of the Hialeah track near Miami, argue that they could manage the Del Mar facility just as smoothly and deliver far more revenue to state coffers.

Entering Home Stretch

Now the race for the new lease has entered the home stretch, with a hearing before the state commission that will select a new operator set for Thursday at the fairgrounds.

Perched anxiously at the rail are residents and officials of surrounding communities, who say the selection could have a dramatic impact on their lives. In particular, local leaders have chafed at the Ogden-Nederlander proposal, which calls for as many as 40 concerts, ranging from classical music to rock 'n' roll, in addition to horse racing.

Buffeted by that prospect, some odd alliances have formed of late. Del Mar leaders, worried that the concerts will cause nighttime traffic and noise, have joined hands with their traditional foes on the Del Mar Fair Board, who worry that the Ogden proposal could erode their jealously guarded control of the grounds.

On Inside Track?

In the meantime, state Finance Department officials have been busy sifting through the proposals, crunching enough numbers to give a supercomputer indigestion in an effort to determine which group offers the best deal. It has not been an easy task. One beleaguered state budget analyst suggested the process goes beyond comparing apples and oranges: "This is like a Waldorf salad."

Although all bets are off on who will emerge the victor, many local officials say the Thoroughbred Club has the inside track for the lease. Most obviously, the club could benefit from the presence of three Fair Board directors on the state Race Track Leasing Commission, the six-member body that will decide the issue.

Indeed, some Fair Board members on the commission seem to be leaning decidedly toward the Thoroughbred Club.

"Not to sound trite, but why do you change horses if the horse has done a hell of a job for you?" asked Jan Anton, a fairgrounds director and commission member. "I think the Thoroughbred Club has done a good job and their lease proposal is the best in my mind for the state of California. They put all the money back into the facility."

The commission, which exists for the sole purpose of handing out the Del Mar track lease, was created by state lawmakers in the midst of controversy over the award of the multimillion-dollar track contract in 1966 to John Alessio, a Tijuana racing and bookmaking operator later jailed for income-tax evasion.

Dubbed the Alessio scandal, the affair also resulted in the Thoroughbred Club winning rights to the 20-year operating lease, which began in 1970 and expires next year. By most accounts, the club has done an effective job managing the track, which has seen steady growth through the years.

Power Base

The club has been dominated by some of the most wealthy and powerful men in San Diego County, leaders of commerce and politics who stand for nothing short of success. Among the 10 directors are Burgener, Strauss, North County construction mogul Werner Lusardi and local financier Thomas Stickel.

By most accounts, however, the driving force has been Mabee, patriarch of the Big Bear grocery store chain and a devout horseman with his own 560-acre thoroughbred ranch in Ramona. For 10 years, Mabee has been president of the Thoroughbred Club.

Although the track is rife with lore, among the most memorable tales is how Mabee came to the rescue one day in 1977 when the money needed to open the Del Mar betting widows had been inadvertently locked in a safe with no available key. Mabee put up the greenbacks by raiding the cash drawers of local Big Bear stores.

The challengers point to such stories as proof that the Thoroughbred Club is little more than an aggregation of San Diego County good old boys, men who have grown fat and lazy in the role of running the track, men who have failed to utilize the facility to its fullest extent.

"It's sort of like the cattlemen's club on the TV show 'Dallas,' " said one critic, who spoke on condition his name not be used. "They sort of sit around and say, 'I'll trade you a grocery store for an oil well.' It's an appendage to their personal prestige and personal wealth. I think that was nice and fine in its time, but today you've got to look at running this as a business."

Scoff at Criticism

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