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Sunday, Dec 3, 2023



So what’s up with financier’s Leon Black’s bid to buy up Arcadia-based Santa Anita Realty Enterprises Inc., owner of the Santa Anita racetrack?

Reading the stock market is sometimes like reading tea leaves but for now, the market says the deal looks shaky, for two reasons.

Reason No. 1 is the recent sag of Inglewood-based Hollywood Park Inc. stock, which owns the horse track in that city, next to the Great Western Forum.

In the bull market of 1993 to near-present, Hollywood Park stock has acted more like a gelding, falling from a high of $35 a share in 1993 to a low of $7.50 last year.

Holly stock raced ahead in late 1996, on the theory that the investor group led by ex-Drexel Burnham Lambert exec Black would buy the Santa Anita oval, convert it into a shopping mall, and send all the horses to Hollywood Park.

Some of you may remember Black for leading an investment group that bought junk bonds for half-price from the portfolio of the old, failed Executive Life insurance company. Shortly after Black agreed to buy the bonds, they charged back up to nearly face value, and he scored a billion dollar profit.

The late 1996 stock rally for Hollywood Park to $15.50 a share seems based in the belief that the track had a chance to get a near-monopoly on Los Angeles area thoroughbred racing.

But the stock in the last three weeks has started to act squishy, falling to $13.125 two weeks ago a 15 percent tumble from its high.

So, to at least some extent, the market is saying that the Black bid is faltering (although last week the stock moved up again into the $14 a share range).

Reason No. 2 to suspect something is weak in the Black bid is price: Santa Anita stock last week traded in the $29.625-a-share range above Black’s sweetened buyout bid of $27 per share.

In the past, Black has been coy about what he would do with Santa Anita once he got control of the 63-year-old facility.

But, said one knowledgeable source who knows Black well, “Leon (Black) cares as much about preserving horse racing at Santa Anita as Charles Hurwitz cares about redwood trees.”

For those who may not remember, Hurwitz was the financier who purchased forest-owner Maxxam Inc., and dramatically accelerated redwood cutting, so as to pay down the junk bonds that financed his buyout. The buyout is still cited by some as an example of the excesses of the junk bond era.

To this day the federal government is trying to save the famous “Headwaters” redwood groves from Hurwitz’s saws.

Others say they too anticipate Black will shutter Santa Anita. “That’s the betting,” said Michael Brown, managing director of investment banking at Sutro & Co., and a former colleague of Black’s at Drexel Burnham Lambert.

“The potential closure of Santa Anita has clearly added some sparkle to Hollywood stock,” he said. (Brown is the lead investment banker on a pending stock swap between Hollywood Park and Boomtown Inc., a gaming company).

Whether Black prevails or not, the market is saying changes are on the way at Santa Anita.

At more than $29 a share, the stock is trading at 52 times trailing earnings, way above norm for a mature stock. It has doubled in the last six months.

It is a “change of control” price meaning the market is anticipating, or at least hoping for, a successful buyout bid.

Some investors are wagering that Hilton Hotels Inc., which in recent years has become as much a gaming company as a hotelier, will ride in to buy Santa Anita.

Conventional wisdom has been that if legalized casino gambling ever came to California, the racetracks would clean up because they would open up casinos at the tracks. Hollywood Park already has a California-style card house on the premises.

Many local horse owners are powerful business leaders in their own right, and Santa Anita is a treasured facility. But, ultimately, it will be the shareholders who determine whether horses run under the San Gabriel mountains much longer.

New Growth Fund

John Odell of Los Angeles-based Capital Management Group Inc. has helped form the Bender Growth Fund, an equity mutual fund to be managed by La Canada Flintridge-based Robert Bender & Associates Inc.

Odell said the drawing card for this particular fund is Bender, who previously limited himself to major investors such as pension funds.

“It gives small investors a chance for the hands-on, professional management, of a small, but talented manager like Bender,” said Odell.

Previously, Bender had a minimum account size of $250,000. But now, the Bender mutual fund will accept as little as $2,500.

The Bender fund will be the first of a series to operate under the umbrella appellation, the “Santa Barbara Group of Funds,” Odell said.

“Each fund in the Santa Barbara Group will be named after the money manager who handles it,” Odell said.

The Bender fund will invest only in U.S. equities, and only in stocks that have prospects of posting 20 percent increases in earnings per share for the next five to seven years, said Odell.

“Only about 150 stocks nationwide even begin to qualify,” said Odell, of Bender’s screening process. Bender is known for his “buy and hold” strategy.

Though not a biggie in the world of money managers, Bender was rated the No. 3 manager in America by the financial publication “Money Manager Review,” for the year ended June 30.

The Bender fund will be marketed through stockbrokers primarily employed in regional brokerages, such as Chicago-based Everen Securities Inc., Crowell Weedon Inc. in downtown Los Angeles, and the San Francisco-based Sutro & Co., said Odell.

Odell’s firm, Capital Management, will handle all the “back office” and marketing work for Bender, leaving the latter free to manage money.

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