The California Horse Racing Board allocated Santa Anita Park the fall racing dates previously operated by the Oak Tree Racing Association at its meeting Feb. 17.
By unanimous vote before about 100 people at Santa Anita, the board opted to transfer the dates, Sept. 28 to Nov. 6, back to Santa Anita instead of returning to Hollywood Park for 2011. Chairman Keith Brackpool emphasized that the decision only applies this year.
The board is planning to undertake a thorough examination of the state's racing calendar for date allocations for 2012.
The move by the board was expected but it means that for the first time in 42 years, the not-for-profit Oak Tree group will not be directly involved in managing a Southern California race meet.
Santa Anita is expected to work out a financial agreement with the non-profit Oak Tree organization for the rights to run its all-important Breeders' Cup stakes preps.
Because of state rules restricting the number of race dates that can be run in a jurisdictional zone, the meet is to be operated by the Pacific Racing Association, the Northern California subsidiary of parent company MI Developments, rather than Santa Anita's Los Angeles Turf Club.
"We face the same tough decision we had in 2010," Brackpool said. "But I think the issues we face as a board are simpler. The meet that was held at Hollywood last year, which was followed by its own (fall/winter) meet, was not the meet we hoped it would be. This (Santa Anita) would be to me the more logical venue at that time of year."
Before the board made its decision, Sherwood Chillingworth, executive vice president for Oak Tree, said that Santa Anita had made an offer to Oak Tree in a letter earlier this month, but that he told officials he could not respond until the board acted on the dates question. Chillingworth sought to keep the dates at Hollywood, where he had a two-year agreement.
"It's been a harrowing and fast 10 months. We really appreciated what Hollywood Park did for us last year," he told the board.
Horse owner Mace Siegel made a strong plea on behalf of Oak Tree retaining its meet at Santa Anita.
"I for one would be delighted to see Oak Tree return to its home at Santa Anita," he said. "That's the obvious thing to do. They are loved over here. Oak Tree must be kept alive. It is not for profit. It is everything that is good about horseracing."
After the meeting, Chillingworth said Oak Tree "will continue to operate in some manner" at Santa Anita, but he was unable to specify what role it would play until it negotiates with Santa Anita. He said the organization will retain office space at the facility through June 30, 2012, and would be able to continue its fundraising activities for industry groups. He would not say what monetary compensation was offered by Santa Anita.
"I think this will be a good experiment," Chillingworth said. "We were grateful for what Hollywood Park offered us and what Santa Anita has offered. We could have been left out in the cold."
Horsemen representatives from the Thoroughbred Owners of California and the California Thoroughbred Trainers both supported the return of the race to dates to Santa Anita, where they had been run under the operation of Oak Tree since 1969 until last year.
Oak Tree had worked out a one-year lease agreement for the 2010 meet at Santa Anita after track chairman Frank Stronach had initially terminated its arrangement. But Oak Tree was forced to move to Hollywood anyway when horsemen objected to the condition of Santa Anita's Pro-ride synthetic track. Santa Anita has since installed a new dirt and clay track.
With the track surface issue resolved, TOC representative Guy Lamothe said horsemen were prepared to return the fall dates to Santa Anita. He said he was aware that there had been discussions about returning the Breeders' Cup to Santa Anita as well.
Alan Balch, executive director of the CTT, said the trainers' group also is behind the move "with no disrespect to Oak Tree, which has been a tremendous force for good."
Santa Anita representative Scott Daruty said he recognizes "Oak Tree's importance to the industry."
"At this point we do not have an agreement with Oak Tree," he said, but added that he wants to make one.
"We would absolutely like to run the fall graded stakes races that traditionally were run by Oak Tree at this venue," Daruty noted. "If they would allow us to run them, we would run them."
Daruty said the California Cup, a longstanding day of races for horses bred in the state that was created by Oak Tree and the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association, has not been successful in recent years. He said Santa Anita would be willing to continue the series "as long as it makes economic sense."
As for the future of Oak Tree, Chillingworth said a move to Del Mar is possible while reapplying for its fall race dates from the board. But he noted that the fairgrounds there, which the state may sell to the city, is "in kind of a state of flux."
The board completed its Southern California racing schedule for 2011 by awarding dates for Fairplex from Sept 8-26 and for the Hollywood fall/winter stand Nov. 9-Dec. 18.