LOS ANGELES -- Men in coats and ties gathered in a fancy downtown hotel Wednesday to announce something good for Southern California and the sport of horse racing. The Breeders' Cup is coming back.
There were smiles all around, as there should have been.
When Santa Anita hosts this event for the sixth time Nov. 2-3, 2012, lots of hotels will be full and restaurants will be humming. The most-used economic impact number, usually the creation of zealous number-crunchers from the Chamber of Commerce, is $60 million.
Television coverage (ESPN/ABC) will bring the rest of the country, and many parts of the world, yet another view of the majestic mountains surrounding the Great Race Place. Racing's best horses and best jockeys will be here and the Sport of Kings, at least for these two days, will be fit for one.
Santa Anita has held this event five times, most recently to smash reviews and record results in 2008 and 2009. That last year was when Zenyatta became the first female to beat the boys in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic. It was must-see TV, must-see sports spectating. Understandably, racing and the Breeders' Cup ache to duplicate that, especially in Southern California weather.
Wednesday's announcement brought a new wrinkle or two. Present was Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was given credit for spearheading the bargaining push that got the Breeders' Cup back. It was held at Churchill Downs last year and will be again in November.
The mayor's involvement, and even the choice of L.A. Live for Wednesday's announcement, gave the 2012 Breeders' Cup branding and identity beyond Arcadia and the handful of nearby horse-race-savvy cities. The implication was clearly that this is now a Los Angeles event.
As the popular expression of the day aptly sums up, it was all good.
Except, in the interest of full disclosure, we need to review the bodies left strewn along the way and preview the caskets ahead.
The prime fall racing dates in Southern California had been, since 1969, the property of the Oak Tree Racing Association. Oak Tree is a not-for-profit group that rented the Santa Anita track annually and has contributed, by several estimates, close to $5 million to various charities, many of them racing related. When the Breeders' Cup ran its previous races at Santa Anita, including the smash hits of '08 and '09, it was during Oak Tree's meeting.
In May 2010, about the time the Breeders' Cup board, still enamored of the Santa Anita experience, was pondering a return on a "semipermanent" basis, Santa Anita owner Frank Stronach announced that he would not renew Oak Tree's lease. That came out of nowhere, left the Breeders' Cup board confused and Oak Tree officials baffled. The next two Breeders' Cups went to Louisville.
In the months that followed, events swirled and confusion reigned.
Horsemen generally disliked the synthetic tracks at Santa Anita and Del Mar that had been mandated by the California Horse Racing Board. Stronach held a big meeting at Del Mar to announce he was tearing out the synthetics and returning to a dirt track in time for the traditional Dec. 26 opener.
In another meeting last year, he held steadfast against allowing Oak Tree to have its late September-November dates for another year, then relented, saying he would still have time to install his new track even after an Oak Tree meeting ended. Then the horsemen revolted, saying Santa Anita's track was too dangerous in its current state. So Hollywood Park's veteran chief executive, Jack Liebau, stepped in and gave Oak Tree a home for its meeting, meaning Hollywood Park stayed open for Oak Tree from late September and on into its regular meet through the third week of December.
Then, earlier this year, the CHRB awarded this year's prime late-September-to-early-November dates -- for 41 years Oak Tree's -- to Stronach and Santa Anita. Those are now the meeting dates that will be used for the 2012 Breeders' Cup.
Oak Tree was out. Stronach had prevailed. Now he, not his renters, hosts the Breeders' Cup. Some will see that as business brutality, others as business acumen. Santa Anita is, after all, his track.
Oak Tree, with its longtime executive vice president, Sherwood Chillingworth, leading the way, is trying to get back in the game, preferably at Del Mar, but maybe at Hollywood Park again. But it needs the CHRB to give it dates.
When this season's fall dates were awarded to Santa Anita, racing board Chairman Keith Brackpool said that decision was "not precedent setting." Apparently, it was. We can assume that the CHRB won't undercut next year's Breeders' Cup.
The racing board is known to be sympathetic to Oak Tree's tradition and cause, but there is little wiggle room in the race calendar to carve out an Oak Tree meeting. But in the CHRB gun sights is Fairplex, and its three weeks of racing dates at the L.A. County Fair immediately after Del Mar's season ends.
"I'm aware of the discussions," said Jim Henwood, chief executive of Fairplex. "But I don't agree that the majority of horsemen would agree with shutting us down."
Henwood pointed out that his track is central to training 2-year-old thoroughbreds, that it still holds four Barretts sales a year that are crucial to Southern California's racing population, and that as many as 25 percent of the Fairplex racing audience is seeing the sport for the first time -- a crucial component in its growth.
Yes, the Breeders' Cup is coming. And yes, the dominoes in Southern California racing keep falling.