Santa Anita: On verge of another change?
When entrepreneur and horse owner Mark Verge was hired to run Santa Anita Park in March 2012, he was well aware of the revolving door that's existed in the executive offices since Frank Stronach purchased the Arcadia, Calif., racetrack in 1998. “I don't know how long a ride it's going to be,” Verge told the Paulick Report, “but it's going to be a wild one.”
Seven months later, it's beginning to look as though that ride may be entering the home stretch.
With Frank Stronach spending a great deal of time in his native Austria trying to get his new political party – Team Stronach – seats in next year's parliamentary election, management of The Stronach Group business divisions, including its racetrack and gaming assets, has fallen on his daughter, Belinda, a respected businesswoman and Canadian politician.
Recently, multiple sources told the Paulick Report, Belinda Stronach held a high-level meeting at Santa Anita, addressing the track's recent troubling business trends. Included in the meeting were key Stronach Group corporate executives and some members of Santa Anita management. Mark Verge was not in that meeting, a source said.
There was one other interesting participant that day: Gene Simmons, the front man for the mega-successful rock group KISS, and the star of the reality television series, “Gene Simmons Family Jewels,” which is in its seventh and final season on A&E.
Simmons has past relationships with the Stronach family. In 2008, he teamed with Belinda Stronach to relaunch the Simmons Record label, focusing on Canadian rock talent. Around that same time, he toured North America with a group of lederhosen-clad models promoting Stronach inspired Frank's Energy Drink beverage through his company Simmons Abramson Marketing.
Will Gene Simmons be named the track's next CEO and join other Stronach-era executives like Cliff Goodrich, Rick Cowan, Bill Baker, Lonny Powell, Jack Liebau, Jack McDaniel, George Haines, Ron Charles, Greg Avioli and Verge, who all had their chance at running The Great Race Place?
It's more likely Belinda Stronach is relying on Simmons for marketing consulting advice as Santa Anita and other racetracks around the country struggle to retain market share in an increasingly competitive entertainment and gambling environment. Simmons, for all his on-stage antics and theatrical makeup as a member of KISS, by many accounts, is a smart marketing man who understands the entertainment world very well.
Verge has brought a unique energy to the job, along with unconventional marketing efforts that either haven't succeeded or been given enough time to work. He's surrounded himself with advisors he knows through some of his other businesses – people like Jimmy Dunne, given the title of “chief creative officer” of Santa Anita. One of Dunne's projects was to write a song, titled “My California,” that Verge hoped would become as popular an anthem to the track as “My Old Kentucky Home” is to Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby. The song, played daily during the races, has been much-maligned by Santa Anita regulars and long-time track employees.
Verge hired another friend, professional gambler Jimmy “The Hat” Allard, to consult on marketing projects. It was Allard who set up a breakfast for Verge to meet Frank Stronach that led to Verge's hiring last spring.
Most of Santa Anita's traditional marketing budget has been moved from television and print to radio, specifically to the nightly talk show hosted by Verge's close friend, Tim Conway Jr., the son of the well-known comedian.
During a regular monthly meeting of the California Horse Racing Board in July when Santa Anita was asked to outline its marketing plans for this fall, a critical stand that includes the Breeders' Cup, Verge was openly maligned by several commissioners for his lack of research and planning. During that meeting, Verge said there would be a free opening day concert featuring singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, who would sing the new song written by Dunne. That never materialized, but Verge did get the University of Southern California marching band to perform.
He's also drawn criticism for centering much of Santa Anita's promotions around his friend and trainer, Doug O'Neill, whose success in this year's Kentucky Derby is counterbalanced by a dubious record of past medication violations. A Doug O'Neill bobblehead giveaway was featured for the Cal Cup, which drew a crowd of only 8,604.
A tipping point in the Stronach Group's view of Verge, one insider said, might have been the verbal altercation Verge had with trainer Bob Baffert's wife at the post position draw for the Pacific Classic Stakes at Del Mar this summer. Days earlier, Verge led a group in buying out Pacific Classic contender Richard's Kid and transferring the horse from Baffert to O'Neill.
To his credit, Verge has tried to focus on bringing a younger, more enthusiastic crowd to Santa Anita. As has happened at some other tracks, however, those efforts have rankled track regulars.
If Verge departs before the winter meeting that begins Dec. 26, Stronach has a strong fallback position in George Haines, a Santa Anita veteran who served a term as president and continues as the track's general manager. Haines has worked in various capacities at Santa Anita since 1972.
It's not known if Haines is a big fan of KISS, but it wouldn't hurt for him to learn the lyrics to “Rock ‘n Roll All Night.”