“We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of societies, inexorably determined by the immutable statutes of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It’s since the man crawled. out of the mud. “
—From “Network”, 1976
Runners of a certain age and generation have said goodbye to Garden State Park, Longacres, Suffolk Downs, Bay Meadows and Hialeah Park. What’s another name on the stack? If a business can snatch the last pennies from a place like Hollywood Park before selling it in the name of its “best use” (translation, NFL stadium), then no race track can be considered sacred. Not even Arlington International Racecourse.
With its final map of the 2021 season on Saturday, the curtain falls on a rich Arlington history that was robust even before the track burned down and was rebuilt in the late 1980s. The Arlington Gallery of Races, de horses and important personalities has placed the track among the finest racing emporiums in North America. But the names of Secretariat, Citation, Cigar, Dr. Fager, and Round Table mean nothing for shareholder value when a racetrack is owned by a publicly traded company like Churchill Downs Inc. hands, Shoemaker and Hartack are just a few named dead. Bill.
After a long career as a running executive on the West Coast, Cliff Goodrich served as president of Arlington Park from late 2002 to 2005. He sees Arlington’s game coming to an end with the weary resignation of someone who has it. saw it coming from afar.
“I have worked in two places in my career—Santa Anita Park and Arlington Park, ”Goodrich said. “But just like Santa Anita, Arlington was sitting on top notch ground. There is no doubt that its “best use” is not as a race track. But what a tragedy it seems he’s gone, because it’s such a special place. “
His sentiments echo the typical abandonment of the imperatives imposed by business ownership. I still remember the scene from “The Thin Red Line” as Sgt. Wells, played by Sean Penn, dives back into a bunker after witnessing the massacre of his men on the grassy slopes of Guadalcanal.
“Property,” he spat. “This whole damn thing is about property.”
Horse racing likes to think of itself as a joint venture between the fortunes of horses, dog handlers and players. In fact, it’s all about ownership, as sport requires huge amounts of land to present a viable product. The floor under the grandstand, the hometretch and the stalls becomes the most fragile and important investment.
In some cases, the property may be partially protected from commercial forces: Del Mar and NYRA tracks are on state-owned property; Keeneland is solidly subsidized by its sales company; Oaklawn Park is a family business with deep ties to the community. They are the lucky ones, but only in the sense that they will be the last to fall.
“Without a doubt, the best model is the Oak Tree Racing Association nonprofit model, where the profits are reinvested, into racing, horses and making things better for workers,” Goodrich said, referring to riders. group that organized a meeting in Santa Anita for four decades.
But Oak Tree lost its lease because it did not own the land. Few groups of riders have the capital resources to face real estate investment valued at the level of a real estate development, rather than a racetrack. Companies have the clout to buy leads and make improvements, and for a while things are rosy. Then the clock ticks and they start to get irritated by the sluggish profits.
“If you are a shareholder, I believe Churchill is acting in the best interests of Churchill shareholders,” Goodrich said. “There’s not a lot of empathy on that side of the equation, though. But that doesn’t mean it’s good for running. People’s lives just don’t seem to get in the way of their calculations.”
At one point or another, Goodrich has led the operational side of four different racetracks, including 19 years in Santa Anita and the last 11 as track president. He was there when the Strub family and their partners converted Santa Anita into a successful real estate investment trust, followed by its sale to Massachusetts-based REIT Meditrust, which ceded the property at a loss to Magna Corp. less than two years later when the tax breaks went south. Goodrich only lasted a few months with Magna’s main man, Frank Stronach.
Spectators outside the paddock in Arlington
“Frank was talking about removing the grass course on the hillside, moving the walking ring to the front of the stand, lots of changes,” Goodrich said. “I was old school with Santa Anita so I wasn’t comfortable knowing that would be his direction. I told him he needed to find his own guy. We broke up in very good terms, but I probably extended my life by moving out there when I did. “
Goodrich spent the early years of the 21st century in a triage role for the California Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Foundation and its Employee Back Health Clinic. Goodrich has helped secure annual funding through a state law affecting a percentage of the state’s pari-mutuel handle, via track, satellite and ADW sources.
After three years in Arlington, Goodrich and his wife, Karen, answered the siren call from their home in Southern California, where their first grandchild had touched the ground. In no time, Goodrich was back at the helm of the CTHF, a position he still holds today.
“I’ve always said that the most valuable assets on racetracks are the horses and the people who take care of them,” said Goodrich. “And sometimes they are not treated very well.”
The three CTHF clinics in Santa Anita, Los Alamitos Racecourse, and Golden Gate Fields require about $ 2 million per year to operate. About $ 1.5 million comes from the mutual handle, while the balance comes from grants, co-payments and modest investments.
Clinics have weathered the COVID-19 pandemic with strict exposure protocols and very few positive cases among their staff, according to Goodrich, while benefiting from the significant increase in ADW betting. Normally, clinics will see about 6,000 patients in a typical year.
“So far we haven’t had to do a lot of fundraising, but I think that’s going to have to change,” Goodrich said. “Let’s face it, the game isn’t that healthy, and it will only get harder. I thought I had a lot of pressure when I was in management. But I had a cake compared to track racing today. “
It would take a radical change to move racetrack stadium ownership away from the pressures of the real estate market and shareholder value. But that may be the only way the sport can survive. In the meantime, Goodrich is counting his blessings that he has found refuge on the other side of the equation.
“I have no doubts that this work has added years to my life,” added Goodrich. “I remember the Santa Anita board giving us standing ovations and saying hello for all the money we made. It was good. But when you work for a nonprofit like me, you feel like you’re helping someone less fortunate every day, you feel like you’re bringing something to society that you don’t really feel like you are doing on a racetrack. “