CHRB holds meeting at San Luis Rey Downs


Last updated 9/25/2007 at Noon

For the first time in the history of the San Luis Rey Downs Thoroughbred Training Center or the California Horse Racing Board, a CHRB meeting was held at San Luis Rey Downs.

The CHRB’s agenda for the August 21 meeting included a non-voting item concerning the future of the San Luis Rey Downs Thoroughbred Training Center. “We in California are looking into how we are going to maintain a viable, vibrant racing program in the state,” said CHRB chair Richard Shapiro.

Four of the seven CHRB members were present at the meeting which was held in what is normally the grain barn of the San Luis Rey Downs Thoroughbred Training Center. Quilts covered the wall for the meeting while chairs, tables, and refreshments were set up for the board members, staff, and guests.

“[San Luis Rey Downs general manager Leigh Ann Howard] did an amazing job to create this facility,” Shapiro said.

The San Luis Rey Downs Thoroughbred Training Center was built in the late 1960s by C. Arnholdt Smith and John Alessio. After the collapse of Smith’s financial empire the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation took over the facility in the mid-1970s, and the Vessels family purchased San Luis Rey Downs from the FDIC in the early 1980s. In 1999 a subsidiary of Magna Entertainment Corporation purchased the training center from the Vessels family.

Howard became the general manager shortly after the purchase. “She’s done a hell of a job the last seven or eight years,” said Frank DeMarco, the general counsel for Magna Entertainment Corporation.

In June 2007 MI Developments, Inc., which is a shareholder in Magna Entertainment Corporation, purchased the San Luis Rey Downs Thoroughbred Training Center. The purchase spurred rumors of development of the property, but MI Developments, Inc. leased the property back to San Luis Rey Downs, Inc. The three-year lease agreement also includes a rolling three-year lease, and DeMarco estimates that any development would be a three-year to five-year process.

Development rumors are also predicting the end of the Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park racetracks in San Mateo and Inglewood, respectively, but those tracks are in more urban settings and would not be as likely to be entangled in zoning considerations as would development of San Luis Rey Downs.

A zoning or general plan change would require approval of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, and Supervisor Bill Horn sent community liaison Courtney Berlin to the CHRB meeting to express support for the continuation of the thoroughbred training facility. “Supervisor Horn is supportive of San Luis Rey Downs,” Berlin said.

Bonsall Sponsor Group chair Margarette Morgan attended the meeting to provide additional community planning perspectives. The current zoning over most of the property stipulates one dwelling unit per two, four, and eight acres, although a 14-acre parcel at the corner of Camino Del Rey and Camino Del Cielo is zoned for higher density. Morgan expressed a willingness to utilize that 14-acre site for a boutique hotel which would serve the equestrian center and visitors to other nearby sites. “We were hoping for a balance here,” she said.

Morgan added that the circulation element of the community and county general plan calls for Camino Del Rey to remain a two-lane road with pocket turns.

Morgan noted that Bonsall’s community character consists primarily of three elements: agriculture, estate homes, and equestrian use. Morgan told the CHRB that between 3,000 and 4,000 horses are estimated to be stabled in Bonsall.

The San Luis Rey Downs involvement in the Bonsall community extends to the Bonsall Chamber of Commerce, where Howard is currently serving as president. “We’re pleased Leigh Ann is also the president of the Chamber of Commerce,” Morgan said.

The California Horse Racing Board is a State of California public agency with regulatory powers, but some state action would require passage by the state legislature. Assemblyman Martin Garrick sent district director Stephen Puetz to the CHRB meeting.

Puetz offered Garrick’s support for the facility. “He understands how important San Luis Rey Downs is,” Puetz said.

“From a horse racing perspective, I think one of the challenges is economically it’s very difficult,” Shapiro said. “It’s not fair to the people who own it if they’re losing money.”

Morgan indicated a willingness to meet with MI Development interests. “I’m open to conversations with anyone,” she said.

Shapiro asked Morgan if the sponsor group would be willing to support satellite wagering at San Luis Rey Downs if that would make the training facility financially viable. “That I would have to review,” Morgan said.

The community input element of satellite wagering would be augmented by zoning issues. “That goes into a grey area,” Morgan said. “I don’t know if we’re zoned for that.”

Shapiro suggested investigating a private-public partnership to ensure the financial viability of San Luis Rey Downs.

“We want to keep the track and we want to keep the facilities available. It really is quite a tourist destination,” Morgan said. “I’m sure the industry itself needs facilities like this.”

The CHRB meeting also included approval of two racing meets and granting the CHRB executive director and chairman of the board authority to execute and approve settlements involving medication violations.

The CHRB also approves nominations to the board of the California Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Foundation, Inc., and set a record at the Bonsall meeting for the oldest CTHF appointee when 96-year-old Noble Threewitt was reappointed to another two-year term.

The CHRB meeting was followed by a lunch reception and tour at Vessels Stallion Farm.


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