I made the trip south to Del Mar at the behest of the horse racing magazine I write for, the Thoroughbred Times and am happy to report what is being viewed as good news for California horsemen in general and particularly those who do business at Santa Anita.
Frank Stronach, who owns Santa Anita, scored big-time points Wednesday night in a meeting here with some 250 horsemen when he announced he will replace the synthetic surface at Santa Anita with a conventional dirt track — that’s 22,000 tons of dirt — and have it ready for the beginning of the Arcadia racetrack’s winter-spring meet Dec. 26.
If the Oak Tree Racing fall meet is run at Santa Anita as scheduled, Sept. 29 – Oct. 31, that would leave only about eight weeks to install the new track, and really only about six weeks before it needs to be ready for horses to test and train on it for several weeks before opening day. Santa Anita President George Haines said after the meeting that the new track can be installed in four weeks if they get approval from city officials to allow round-the-clock work during that time to haul in and re-install 22,000 tons of dirt.
But there is still a possibility that the Oak Tree meet will not be allowed to run at Santa Anita, forcing Oak Tree to Hollywood Park. If that is the case, installation of the new track can begin prior to the end of Oak Tree’s scheduled final day of racing on Oct. 31.
More will be known about the status of the Oak Tree meet after a preliminary report is delivered by race surface expert Mick Peterson at a California Horse Racing Board meeting today (Thursday, Aug. 20) at Del Mar. Peterson, a University of Maine professor, was brought in to conduct a study on the safety of the current synthetic surface.
Sherwood “Chilly” Chillingworth, executive director of the Oak Tree Racing Association, said Wednesday night that he has not talked to Peterson nor does he have any idea what he will say in the report. “We’re hoping to run our meet at Santa Anita,” Chillingworth said. “We’ve already collected a million dollars in ticket sales and and spent a lot in preparing to run at Santa Anita.”
Wednesday night’s meeting, in contrast to earlier sessions with horsemen and the CHRB, was very congenial. Stronach emphasized working together with all contingencies to improve horse racing and again talked about his idea for a bet that pays at least a guaranteed $10 million. To win such a huge sum, a bettor would have to pick the exact order of finish of the first four horses in four consecutive races, a quad superfecta if you will. Stronach believes such high stakes woud attract huge interest from all over the world and generate much needed revenue for horsemen as well and track owners. “I believe track owners have the right to make the most money,” Stronach said, but added he would split profits 50-50 with horsemen.
He noted that the dirt used for the new track, which he estimated will cost between $5 million and $6 million, will be similar to the dirt used at the Palmermo track in Buenos Aires. Mace Siegel, who at a CHRB meeting June 22 talked Stronach into giving Oak Tree at least one more year at Santa Anita, stood up again Wednesday night and suggestsed that he, Stronach and Chillingworth sit down together and worked out a new long-term deal. Stronach said he was agreeable to that.
Asked after the meeting if he was open to extending Oak Tree’s contract and also if it was true that he was seeking a four-week extension to Santa Anita winter-spring meet, as one source told us, Stronach was evasive. “We’ve have to work with all contingencies,” he said.
The reaction among the crowd of some 250 people seemed upbeat across the board, and his announcement about the new dirt track at Santa Anita drew applause. “I agree with everything he said 100%,” said horse owner Jerry Moss. “I like his ‘big bet’ idea.” As for Stronach’s dirt-track announcement, trainer Bob Baffert said, “It was music to my ears.” Stronach had lunch with CHRB Chairman Keith Brackpool and Vice Chairman David Israel Wednesday and called it “a very productive meeting.” Stronach will also be at today’s CHRB meeting. The question is, will the atmosphere of cooperation continue?