The Oak Tree Racing Association is back in the race business following a 3 1/2-year absence with the approval of its application to conduct the Alameda County Fair meet by the California Horse Racing Board April 25.
The three-week stand, to be called "Oak Tree at Pleasanton," will run for 12 racing days from June 19 through July 6. Oak Tree president John Barr told the board that the charitable, not-for-profit organization began working with the Alameda County Fair and the California Authority of Racing Fairs (CARF) about a year ago to form the partnership. State legislation was approved and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in order to allow the move.
The board, meeting at the Golden Gate Fields turf club, approved the request unanimously after learning that Oak Tree planned to invest $400,000 this year, much of it in the way of improved stakes purses.
"Oak Tree’s service and charitable activities over the years have been very beneficial to the racing industry in California," said CHRB chairman Chuck Winner. "Their alliance with CARF and Alameda County Fair is a shot in the arm for racing in Northern California. We wish them success."
A fixture at Santa Anita Park for four decades, where it operated the annual fall meet, the track terminated Oak Tree's lease after the 2010 season. Oak Tree operated the fall meet that year at Hollywood Park, where it was moved due to concerns over the condition of the former synthetic racing surface at Santa Anita.
"For 3 1/2 years, we've been looking for a new home," said Sherwood Chillingworth, Oak Tree's executive vice president. "It's very pleasing to us that we've been welcomed by the fair with open arms. We think we're going to bring something here. We're advancing substantial support to the stakes fund. We'll supply $150,000 in additional purses and contribute $65,000 to advertising."
The Pleasanton fair will hold a pair of $100,000 stakes, the Oak Tree Handicap June 21 and the Oak Tree Distaff, a filly and mare race June 28 for California-breds. Also on the schedule is the $75,000 Oak Tree Sprint July 4 as well as a pair of overnight stakes, the $50,000 Juan Gonzalez Memorial July 5 and the $50,000 Everett Nevin Alameda County July 6.
"We're up here on a simple mission," Chillingworth said. "Northern California is the cradle of California racing. What we want to do is to help it recapture some of the glory."
Oak Tree is best known for its charitable donations, amounting to some $30 million over the past 40 years, Barr said. Various organizations that improve the industry, such as the American Horse Council, the California Retirement Management Account (CARMA), which supports and raises awareness of the needs to provide retirement and retraining services for ex-racehorses, Grayson-Jockey Club Foundation, and the University of California-Davis, are among the many recipients over the years. Oak Tree has assisted in the establishment of facilities and programs for backstretch workers as well.
However, since losing its lease with Santa Anita, the contributions have been cut back to minimal levels due to the lack of income, Barr explained. Oak Tree has a two-year agreement with the fair and CARF, he said, and he hopes it can be profitable so it will be extended.
" 'Chilly' and I are getting a little long in the tooth. We're not going to be around forever," Barr said. "We'd really like to see Oak Tree be able to continue its legacy into the future. There are a lot of people out there that aren't particularly happy they are no longer receiving our donations."
Alameda County Fair CEO Jerome Hoban said he was happy with arrangement.
"The alliance with these partners will be a big gain for horse racing in Northern California," he said in a statement. "Combining the legacy of Oak Tree with the long heritage of racing at Alameda County Fair will bring new excitement to racing at Pleasanton. This is also a great opportunity to showcase horse racing to the hundreds of thousands of people who attend our fair every year. Our community is looking forward to the event."
In other action, the CHRB amended a rule restricting slightly the use of riding crops in races. In a separate matter, the board also established that it will invoke the maximum penalty of a lifetime ban for anyone using an electrical shock device or "buzzer" on a horse within racetrack enclosures in the state.
A representative for the Jockeys' Guild said the change in use of the riding crop has the support of the organization. The change would make it a violation for a jockey to strike a mount after raising the whip above his or her shoulder, and also prohibit using it more than three times without allowing the horse to take at least two full strides. The idea, commissioners said, was to allow the jockey time to see if the horse was responding to the encouragement.
Winner said it was an important matter due to the "perception of fans and the wagering public" regarding whip use. He also noted that the crops now in use, made of soft leather, are much easier "in terms of impact on the horse. Since these riding crops have been in use, we see no signs of the welts we used to see."
As for the use of a "buzzer," the lifetime ban would extend to a rider caught with the device in races or in exercise, and could also apply to a trainer or owner if it was discovered they knew about such use.
The board also approved two new mini-satellite wagering facilities, one in Bakersfield and one in downtown San Diego.