Developer Rick Caruso is considering buying Santa Anita Park, the iconic horse-race track owned by Magna Entertainment Corp., which has filed for bankruptcy and plans to put the facility up for sale.

Caruso told the Business Journal that he would prefer that a horse-racing operator buy the Arcadia track, but he might step in to protect his $500 million shopping mall planned for the track's vast parking lot.

"My preference would be to just do the development, because we're in the development business, not the horse-racing business," said Caruso of Caruso Affiliated Holdings LLC. "(However), we're taking a look at the numbers. If the deal looks right, we might do it ourselves."

Magna, an Ontario, Canada, company owned by businessman and horse enthusiast Frank Stronach, announced March 5 that it was reorganizing under U.S. and Canadian bankruptcy laws after defaulting on a loan. Magna, which owns six other major thoroughbred race tracks, said it plans to continue operations while seeking buyers for its assets.

Caruso, whose Arcadia development would be his latest big mall project, is not the only potential buyer of the track, one of the most storied in the country.

Churchill Downs Inc., the Louisville, Ky., track owner, including the famous site that hosts the Kentucky Derby, is seen as a possible buyer given its status in the industry.

In addition, a group of leading Southern California thoroughbred owners met last week to discuss making a possible bid for the track, one of just a handful in the region.

"We're very concerned," said Marsha Naify, chair of the Thoroughbred Owners of California's board, which is exploring the acquisition. "Santa Anita is the crown jewel of racing in California. We're looking to see how we can keep it within the racing industry."

No one could venture a guess as to how much Santa Anita might cost.

Storied history

Though Santa Anita opened in 1934 and is the oldest and most preeminent horse-racing track in California, it and other similar venues have been battling declining attendance and betting revenues for decades as gamblers turned toward Las Vegas, Indian casinos and even local card clubs.

Millions of people used to visit the track each year in its heyday. But in the last five years, Santa Anita's annual attendance has dwindled to about 665,000 from more than 765,000. Over the same period, the annual on-track handle amount of money bet at the track fell to $143 million from nearly $190 million.

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