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Oak Tree a scratch at Santa Anita

The Oak Tree Racing meet at Santa Anita Park, an Arcadia fixture since 1969, is apparently going to be held at Hollywood Park this year after all.

The California Horse Racing Board voted today (Thursday, Aug. 19). to deny the Oak Tree Racing Association’s application to run its fall meet at Santa Anita, meaning in all likelihood the Oak Tree meet scheduled to begin Sept. 29 will be held at the Inglewood track.

Larry Stewart

I also covered the CHRB meeting at Del Mar for the Thoroughbred Times national publication.

Sherwood “Chilly” Chillingworth, Oak Tree’s executive director, made a plea to the board to get approval on the application to run the meet at Santa Anita, saying among other things that a lot of contracts and financial commitments amounting to $750,000 to $1 million were already in place. CHRB Chairman Keith Brackpool told Chillingworth, “Safety trumps everthing else.” Chillingworth agreed. Brackpool then told Chillingworth to huddle up with trainers and horsemen outside the meeting area at the Del Mar Surfside Race Place and come in an hour or whenever to report if a consensus has been reached as to whether the Oak Tree meet can be run at Santa Anita. Peterson and Santa Anita track superintendent Richard Tedesco joined a large contingent of at least 50 people leaving the room for the private meeting. When the group returned, Chillingworth and Tedesco made a case that the track at Santa Anita was safe, and that the inconsistencies described by Peterson were the result of the track not being currently maintained because it has been closed to training. Then Zetcher and Sadler took their turns at the microphone and were in sync that the Oak Tree meet should be moved. Brackpool then excused Chillingworth and gave him time to consult with the Oak Tree board on how to proceed. Next came strong support of Santa Anita and Tedesco from a number of speakers, including trainer Richard Mantella, a member of of the Oak Tree board, and Rick Arthur, the CHRB’s equine medical director. But Chilingworth, seeing the handwriting on the wall, asked that the CHRB vote on the application to run the meet at Santa Anita knowing it would be denied. Chillingworth took this tact, the said, so that he could begin proceedings to move the meet to Hollywood Park and submit a new application.

The CHRB vote, which was unanimous with one abstention from board member Richard Rosenberg, came after two organizations, the Thoroughbred Owners of California and the California Thoroughbred Trainers, sought the switch to Hollywood Park. The arguments for the switch were presented by TOC Chairman Arnold Zetcher and CTT President John Sadler and came a couple of hours after a detailed report by track expert Michael “Mick” Peterson, PhD, a professor at the University of Maine. The CHRB brought in Peterson to inspect the condition of the synthetic track at Santa Anita, which he did last week. Peterson, in presenting his report, expressed concerns about inconsistencies in the track surface and its inability to handle excessive moisture. Also, Peterson, in a slide presentation, showed a picture of a dozen or so small rocks he found in a 30-foot area on the track. It is believed the rocks came to the surface through a protective membrame that covers the base. But Peterson declined to make a recommendation as to whether Oak Tree should or should not be run at Santa Anita.

CHRB Vice Chairman David Israel attempted to pin down Peterson with this question: “If you had a $3 million horse and could run him in a race with a purse of $300,000 on Oct. 1 at Santa Anita and know he would win, would you run him.” “That’s a tough one,” Peterson said. “I would have to defer to someone who knows the horse better than I do.”

MI Developments Chairman Frank Stronach, addressing the board, said he would never again install a synthetic surface in any of his racetracks. Stronach, pointing out the initial installer of the synthetic track at Santa Anita made mistakes, said, “The base wasn’t done right. It was done on the cheap.”

Stronach repeated what he told some 250 horsemen the night before, that he has committed to replace Santa Anita’s synthetic track with a conventional dirt track. He told the board that he planned to have all permits in place and the material needed on hand to physcially start installing work on the dirt track the day after the Oak Tree meet ends Oct. 31. He said he hoped to have the work completed by the first or second week of December so trainers could resume at Santa Anita well before the start of the winter-spring meet on Dec. 26.

Now with Oak Tree apparently moving to Hollywood Park, installation could start earlier. Both Zetcher and Sadler used this point in helping make their case to move the meet.

Brackpool said a vote on the new Hollywood Park application would take place within 48 hours after it is submitted. Whether that would require a special meeting of the CHRB or if it could be taken by telephone was still to be decided, Brackpool said.

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