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Santa Anita’s wild ride

It has been a wild and crazy week for Santa Anita and the Oak Tree Racing Association.

Larry Stewart

As a correspondent for the Thoroughbred Times, a national magazine based in Lexington, Ky., it has kept me hopping and left me more than a little perplexed – and a bit angry as well.

First came the news last Friday that Magna International Developments (MID), the Frank Stronach-controlled company based in Toronto that now owns Santa Anita, had voided Oak Tree’s contract to continue conducting its fall meet at the Arcadia racetrack.

Then on Tuesday, MID issued a press realease that was one of the weirdest I have ever seen in my 40-plus years as a sports journalist. The press release stated that “recent actions … concerning its lease with Oak Tree Racing Association have been misperceived by the California horse racing industry.” The press release went on to say that MI Developments Chief Executive Officer Dennis Mills “will immediately commence discussions with all participants in the California horse racing industry. … MID regrets any misunderstanding within the horse racing industry. “MID looks forward to continuing to work with the horse racing industry and its valued stakeholders in creating and sustaining jointly beneficial solutions to many issues currently facing the industry.”

The press release was issued on the same day it was announced that highly respected Santa Anita Park President Ron Charles, a key executive in Stronach’s Magna empire, was resigning. Charles told associates at Santa Anita on Monday that he was stepping down. “I just felt the time is right,” Charles told me the next morning. I asked if the situation involving the Oak Tree contract was a factor in his decision, and Charles paused before answering. Choosing his words carefully, he said: “My decision had already been made.”

Charles, 62, was hired by MIDevelopments chairman Frank Stronach in November 2004 as the executive director in charge of the two California tracks then owned by Stronach’s Magna Entertainment Corp., Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields. Charles was named president of Santa Anita six months later.

During the past few weeks, Charles had several discussions with Stronach about stepping down, including a final one on Sunday. Charles said the two are parting on good terms. “We will always be friends,” he said. Charles said he was undecided about his future path. “First of all, I’m going to take some time off,” he said. “But I’m sure at some point I will get back into horse racing.”

As for the Oak Tree situation, Mills came to Arcadia Wednesday to talk with Chillingworth and other executives and was planning to have further discussions with Chillingworth on Thursday at a regularly-scheduled meeting of the California Horse Racing Board at Golden Gate Fields in Northern California. Chillingworth said that if an agreement with MID cannot be worked out, Oak Tree could move its fall meeting to Del Mar or Hollywood Park. “Both tracks are willing to have us,” Chillingworth said.

The Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita Park has been a Southern California fixture since 1969 and served as the host of the last two Breeders’ Cup World Championships.  The contract with Magna wasn’t due to expire until 2016.

After the most recent developments, Chillingworth told me, “Things are brightening up.”

A column by Bradford Cummings that was picked up by the Paulick Report, a national website featuring horse racing news, ripped into Magna and Mills pretty hard. In part, the column read: “MI Developments, the new owner of the racetracks formerly under the umbrella of now-bankrupt Magna Entertainment, has . . . alienated one of the few organizations that has been a bright spot for California racing. “By trashing Oak Tree, Magna has trashed the non-profit group’s generous industry-related charity work and the topflight racing it has become known for. There are many horsemen, especially in California, who believe Magna has not only attacked an organization but by proxy of their relationship to Oak Tree, attacked them personally.

“Magna’s answer? A confusing Pravda-esque press release that seems to not only make the argument that Magna did nothing wrong, but incredibly makes the case that the misperceptions were everyone else’s fault. And the title of the release? MI DEVELOPMENTS ANNOUNCES INTENTION TO SEEK SOLUTIONS FOR A PROSPEROUS AND SUCCESSFUL CALIFORNIA HORSE RACING INDUSTY.

“Do they actually expect us to believe this? And is there anything that reads more false to people these days than announcing intentions to seek solutions? It’s a statement that means so little, it makes milquetoast seem spicy.”

The column went on to say that “Mills, a former Canadian politician, should know better than to rub salt into wounds his company has created. He should know better than to claim that everyone else just misunderstands them. “After all, it is incumbent upon the company or politician to convince others that they are worth the investment in time and/or money, not the other way around. During this time of turmoil both within our industry, Magna simply has to do better. They should be leaders that inspire people to follow, not blame them for not falling in line. “Magna has only a very short window to sway the public. Bringing Oak Tree back to the table and knocking off the condescending press releases would be a good place to start.”

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