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THOROUGHBRED RACING / BILL CHRISTINE : TRA Memberships Shrinking as Association Dues Increasing

March 03, 1995|BILL CHRISTINE

A number of years ago, the late Edward J. DeBartolo Sr., owner of racetracks in Cleveland and elsewhere, attended a board meeting of the Thoroughbred Racing Assns. in San Francisco. Assembled at a long table were executives from about 50 tracks.

"What did he say?" DeBartolo said at one point during the meeting. He was seated at the end of the table, far away from the speakers.

"I don't know," said someone next to him.

"If we can't hear," DeBartolo said, "then what are we doing here?"

In recent weeks, tracks have been asking themselves that question about their TRA memberships.

The bills, those reflecting the hiring of TRA Commissioner Brian McGrath at an annual salary of $750,000, have arrived, and dues for some tracks have increased more than 100%. Consequently, the trade group's membership has shrunk to fewer than 40 tracks, its lowest number in years. Santa Anita's Cliff Goodrich, elected in January to a two-year term as TRA president, called for unity in his acceptance speech, but, with less than half the tracks in the United States belonging, the group is headed in the opposite direction.

Sportsman's Park in Illinois, Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, Beulah Park in Ohio and Golden Gate Fields near San Francisco have dropped out, and others, such as the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, are considering resigning. In New York, where state auditors are scrutinizing the spending practices of the association that runs Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga, the three tracks' dues reportedly have reached the $800,000 level because there are fewer tracks to absorb the tab for the Manhattan offices of McGrath and his staff.

The TRA status of other tracks might be tenuous because of an overlap of executives from tracks that have dropped out. Stormy Bidwill, whose family runs Sportsman's Park, is also one of the principal shareholders at Churchill Downs. John Brunetti, a leading shareholder and board member at Hollywood Park, is also president of Hialeah, a track that left the TRA several years ago.

Brunetti, reached at his Florida office, didn't want to talk about recommendations he might make to the Hollywood Park board regarding membership in the TRA. But like Charles Cella, the Oaklawn Park owner, Brunetti said Hialeah withdrew from the TRA because it wasn't getting enough for its money.

"The cost outweighs the benefits," Brunetti said. "Even having the services of the TRPB (the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, the TRA's security subsidiary) is no longer worth it."

McGrath was an entertainment and sports marketing executive with no experience in racing when he began a three-year contract with the TRA in 1994. He was credited with avoiding a national jockeys' walkout over an insurance dispute at the end of 1994, but his major project, the National Best Seven, has been a disaster.

Heaping more expenses on tracks comes at a time when many can least afford it. Competition from other forms of gambling has significantly eroded horse racing's position in the marketplace. Racing's share of the national gambling dollar has shrunk from 28% to 5% since 1974. Some tracks, with Hollywood Park in the forefront, have joined the casino craze rather than try to compete against it.

Oaklawn Park was a charter member of the TRA, in 1942, and both Charles Cella and his father served terms as president.

"This is a bitter pill, having to drop out after all these years," Cella said. "Our dues have more than doubled, to more than $200,000 a year. If we got something for what we are paying, fine. But we're not."

Dropping out of the TRA would be embarrassing for Hollywood Park and the New York Racing Assn., because their chief executives--Hollywood's R.D. Hubbard and NYRA's Allen Dragone--served on the five-member search committee charged with finding a commissioner. At one point, none of the leading candidates had racing experience.

Starting at the top, the nonprofit, state-regulated New York tracks brought in hard-nosed Kenny Noe last year to clean house, and he, backed to the wall by cost-conscious legislators, began trimming the fat in the executive suite. Now Noe, a veteran racing official, is looking at a big bill from the Thoroughbred Racing Assns., an expenditure that will jump out when state auditors come around. They will be asking what it's for, and Noe could use a good answer.

Horse Racing Notes

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