The Oak Tree Racing Association appears to be on the move once again after horsemen refused to go along with holding the fall meeting at Santa Anita over concerns with the main track's condition.
The California Horse Racing Board rejected Oak Tree's license application for the meet, which was to run at Santa Anita Sept. 29 through Oct. 31, by a 6-0-1 vote at its meeting Aug. 19 at Del Mar. Sherwood Chillingworth, Oak Tree's executive vice president, said he immediately will reopen negotiations with horsemen and Hollywood Park to move the meet there.
The CHRB would have to call a special hearing to approve an application for Oak Tree to race at Hollywood Park. That meeting could come in a matter of days, depending on the progress of talks.
Chillingworth, meeting separately during the board meeting with representatives of the horsemen's groups -- the Thoroughbred Owners of California and the California Thoroughbred Trainers -- was unable to get them to budge from their opposition to running the meet at Santa Anita.
The track became the subject of complaints following the conclusion of its winter/spring meet in late April, which was one of the safest in Santa Anita's history in terms of equine fatalities. Without a willingness from the horsemen to race there, the board had little option but to reject the application. Member Richard Rosenberg voted to abstain.
“There’s a group of trainers that would not like to race at Santa Anita this year,” Chillingworth said. “We also have a group of trainers that think the track is perfectly safe and would testify to that.”
The Pro-Ride track's drainage problems have been well-documented in the past couple of years. A recent renovation of the main track created more concerns when rocks were brought to the surface after track workers attempted to penetrate the hardened base. With horsemen complaining, the CHRB brought in Dr. Mick Peterson, one of the world's foremost experts on engineered racing surfaces, to examine the track last week.
In a brief overview of his findings, Peterson told the board that the track's base is inconsistent and that it held quite a bit more moisture than other synthetic tracks.
“My concern is with the hard pan layer not being level or consistent,” he said. “If there is a way to make that level or consistent, I believe that will address the issues. That will be up to maintenance personnel to tell you whether they can do that.
"What we see when we look at the ground penetrating radar is that it is deep on the turns and shallow near the finish line," Peterson said.
He added, "The other concern is rocks on the surface. The rock issue is a significant concern."
Track superintendent Richard Tedesco said the consistency problems were fixable in time for the start of the Oak Tree meet. He said the rocks, mostly pieces of broken up black top, had been removed.
Oak Tree had been set to move to Hollywood Park in June after MI Developments chairman Frank Stronach, Santa Anita's owner, terminated its agreement with the charitable racing organization that began in 1969. Stronach reversed himself in a meeting with the CHRB June 22 and gave Oak Tree permission to run the 2010 meet there. After some delay, a new lease was approved and it appeared Oak Tree would be able to remain in its home for one more season. Then the track maintenance issue arose.
The latest skirmish came one day after Stronach, speaking to horsemen at Del Mar on the evening of Aug. 18, pledged to install a new dirt surface by early December, in time for the 2010-11 season that begins Dec. 26. Stronach spoke briefly to the board at Del Mar as well, reiterating his position.
"I said from day one when we were mandated (to install synthetic tracks in California) that I didn't like it and it doesn't work," he said. "There is no way you can control all of the factors, heat, moisture."
He added: "I detected a lot of good will (from horsemen) yesterday, a sincere hope that we can work together and come to solutions that can get horse racing back to firm footing once again."
Stronach said the new track could be installed in time immediately after the Oak Tree meet concluded. The interim time would be taken up deciding on and acquiring the needed materials and securing the necessary permits.
Keith Brackpool, chairman of the CHRB, reminded Stronach that MID would need to submit a request for a waiver from the synthetic surface mandate, which was approved in 2007 for the state's major tracks. But given the extraordinarily criticism that engineered surfaces have stirred in California, it should be a mere formality.
As for Oak Tree, Stronach approved of it remaining at Santa Anita in 2010 or moving, saying, "Do what's best for the horses."
After meeting with TOC and CTT representatives outside the board room for about an hour, Chillingworth made it clear he had no desire to relocate. He noted that much of the marketing and mailings to box seat customers had already taken place, and that many contracts for the upcoming meet had been executed. He expressed confidence in the safety of the Santa Anita track and the ability of Tedesco and his men to keep it that way.
Jack Liebau, Hollywood Park's president, asked for some action.
"Hollywood Park has gone the extra mile in this," he said. "We were left at the altar in June. Every day that passes, I think the chances of a successful meet (at Hollywood) are less and less. We're always here but treat us fairly."
Arnold Zetcher, the chairman of the TOC, and John Sadler, president of the CTT, opposed staying at Santa Anita.
"There clearly are issues and questions about whether or not the track surface at Santa Anita is going to be safe," Zetcher said.
Pointing to Peterson's report, he added, "It appears to us just too chancy that in the next two to three weeks we can go in and fix the situation in order to run in five weeks. Our conclusion is that we should move the meet over to Hollywood."
Zetcher said that extra time would also help Santa Anita's installation of a new dirt track.
Sadler noted, "We've been working on this for quite awhile. We would like to see the meet run at Hollywood Park. You heard the comments of Mick Peterson and we have the same concerns. He did not have those concerns about Hollywood Park.
"We think the track that is there right now (at Santa Anita) is not the same track we had last winter. As far as the statistics (on horse fatalities), the numbers are the numbers but we feel we would be better served at Hollywood Park."
Trainers Peter Miller, Howard Zucker, Matthew Chew and Richard Mandella, an Oak Tree director, all spoke in favor of remaining at Santa Anita.
Miller noted that with Santa Anita closed for track installation while Oak Tree runs at Hollywood, there would be up to 2,500 horses a day using the Cushion Track.
"Hollywood Park cannot handle 2,500 horses a day. It's a fact. I just think we're shooting ourselves in the foot again," Miller said.
Zucker, former chairman of the CTT's track safety committee, said of Santa Anita, "Don't use that track as an excuse to change this meeting." He added, "A lot of trainers feel the way I do."
Dr. Rick Arthur, the CHRB's equine medical director and also a member of the Oak Tree board, agreed.
"This is one of the safest racetracks in America," he said. "Its fatality rate is a quarter of the national rate. We are very confident that Richard (Tedesco) can make this track safe. We are very confident that a safe and successful meet can be run at Santa Anita this fall."
Commissioner Jerry Moss was left scratching his head over the entire issue.
"I don't get it, to tell you the truth. I don't get what's the big deal about transferring Oak Tree to Hollywood Park for one year, if that's what the majority want to do. This could provide a spark for Hollywood Park. I don't think you are going to hurt Mr. Stronach's feelings by leaving."