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No Oak Tree would hurt Arcadia

If Oak Tree Racing moves away from Santa Anita Park, even for just a year, it would be a blow to the city of Arcadia.

Larry Stewart

“The loss of Oak Tree would have financial implications for the city, sure,” said Mayor Peter Amundson. “But beyond that is the harm it would do to Santa Anita, which is so important to our city. We are very concerned about its preservation. “Wherever you go, if someone is not familiar with Arcadia, all you have to tell them is it is home to Santa Anita.”

To ease the financial hit, MI Developments, Inc. (MID), which now owns the racetrack, has offered to pay the city $185,000 if there is no Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita this fall. But that would only cover what the city makes off the handle during the five-week Oak Tree meet. The city’s cut is one-third of one percent.

The offer from MID was made when two of the company’s top executives, CEO Dennis Mills and COO Don Cameron, met with Arcadia City Council members Mickey Segal and Bob Harbicht three weeks ago. Segal said $185,000 wouldn’t come close to covering the total loss to the city. “There is a lot of ancillary money that will go away,” Segal said, referring mainly to tax money generated by racing patrons.

It’s all become a soap opera that could be titled “As Oak Tree Turns.”

First, MID’s Mills on May 15 informed the Oak Tree Racing Association that its lease with Santa Anita was being voided even though the track makes around $4 million a year from that lease. Oak Tree later set a deadline of June 4 for having a new lease in place, but MID’s Mills told Oak Tree those conditions could not be met and to make plans to take its meet elsewhere.

Since then, Oak Tree has set a new deadline of July 1 for having a deal in place with Hollywood Park, Del Mar or Santa Anita. However, a deal with Santa Anita appears to be a remote possibility.

Another hurdle appeared when Mills said that if MID decides to replace the Pro-Ride synthetic surface on Santa Anita’s main track, it would take four months and wipe out Oak Tree’s 2010 dates, which are Sept. 29-Oct. 31. “It’s not going to be a microwave experience,” Mills said from his Toronto area office of the possibility of installing a new track. “No one wants to make the same mistakes that were made on the first two synthetic surfaces, which cost millions and millions of dollars.”

Meanwhile, the city of Arcadia is faced with not only the probability of losing the Oak Tree meet, it has already lost out on the possibility of hosting the 2011 Breeders’ Cup World Championships. Oak Tree, site of the Breeders’ Cup in 2008 and 2009, at one time was a leading candidate to host the Breeders’ Cup in 2011 and beyond. But now the 2011 Breeders’ Cup will be held at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., which is also this year’s site.

As for the future of the Oak Tree meet, Mills declined to make any prediction. “I keep repeating myself,” he said. “The key moment is going to be when Mr. Stronach addresses the horse racing board.” Mills was referring to MID chairman Frank Stronach and the California Horse Racing Board meeting on June 22 at Hollywood Park.

Meanwhile, the city of Arcadia is faced with losing a major attraction that has been a boon to its economy since 1969. City Manager Don Penman said the total economic impact on the community would be hard to quantify. He did, however, provide some details, such as how much the city got from the Oak Tree handle over the past three years. It was $189,012 in 2007 before dropping to $185,291 in 2008 and $184,058 in 2009, despite the presence of the Breeders’ Cup those two years.

Beyond that, the city annually gets between $15,000 and $20,000 from the sales tax of merchandise and food sold at Santa Anita. A more significant number is the sales tax money from food and merchandise bought by Santa Anita patrons away from the track during the Oak Tree meet. Also, the city has a $10% bed tax on hotels, which generally have a higher occupancy rate when there is racing at Santa Anita. And nearby restaurants frequented by racing fans such as Pepper’s, the Derby and Matt Denny’s Ale House will take a hit if there is no Oak Tree at Santa Anita. “We’ll feel it, no question,” said Matt McSweeny, the owner of Matt Denny’s. “A lot of people come here straight from the track.” Trainer John Shirreffs and his wife Dottie are among the racetrack regulars at Matt Denny’s and the Derby, which are both located on Huntington Avenue east of the track.

Local bars such as the Station on Baldwin Avenue will feel the pinch as well. “We not only get people from the track coming in but also a lot of people who work there,” said owner Terry McCollum, who is also a horse racing regular. “On a personal note, I hate to see Oak Tree go away because it is such a classy meet. It and Del Mar are the two best meets in Southern California. Oak Tree wouldn’t be the same at Hollywood Park.” Said councilman Bob Harbicht, who previously served three terms as mayor: “Just as important is the tradition and excitement of having the Oak Tree meet here in Arcadia.”

(Editor’s note: A similar story also appears in the June 19 edition of the Thoroughbred Times)

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