Santa Anita Adds New Wrinkle to Oak Tree Mess

Installation of new racing surface would preclude autumn meet, says company CEO.

A new wrinkle was added to the intractable Oak Tree Racing Association lease mess with Santa Anita Park June 9.

The chief executive officer of the company that now owns Santa Anita said it would be impossible to allow Oak Tree to operate its annual autumn meet at the Arcadia, Calif., track if California horsemen want to see a new racing surface installed there in time for the 2010-11 winter/spring meet.

At this point, it appears extremely likely that Oak Tree, which has operated at Santa Anita since 1969, will be moving its five-week stand to Hollywood Park for the 2010 season, acknowledged Sherwood Chillingworth, executive vice president of the not-for-profit racing association. No final decision has been made, however.

Dennis Mills, vice president and CEO for MI Developments, said company chairman Frank Stronach would address the situation with the California Horse Racing Board when the commission meets June 22 at Hollywood Park. MID voided the contract allowing Oak Tree to lease Santa Anita through 2016 on May 15 after it took control of the track through a reorganization plan of its subsidiary, Magna Entertainment Corp., approved by a bankruptcy court in Delaware in March.

Mills said Stronach plans to amplify on his plans to reinvigorate racing in California when he speaks to the CHRB. In the meantime, a June 4 meeting scheduled between MID officials and Oak Tree to discuss terms for a new lease was canceled.

Mills said he hoped Stronach and Chillingworth would meet during his visit to California. But he also said he understood Oak Tree needs to make plans for its meet, which runs Sept. 29-Oct. 31, and encouraged Oak Tree's pursuit of a new venue, either Hollywood or Del Mar.

"The biggest challenge that exists in California is the racing surface (at Santa Anita). That is something that we are pre-occupying our minds with more than anything right now," Mills said by phone from Toronto. "Assuming Mr. Stronach has a successful meeting with the (CHRB), we are going to need unfettered access to that facility from now until the time Santa Anita opens in December."

At the root of the track surface issue is a proposal for making Santa Anita the permanent host of the Breeders' Cup, Mills said. He cited a letter from Greg Avioli, Breeders' Cup president and CEO, to Oak Tree, which held successful events in 2008 and 2009 for the two-day racing festival.

"One of the key factors cited in the letter...was that Breeders' Cup wanted a tested surface (for 2011) and not the one that exists there right now," Mills said. "In order to accomplish that, to have a tested surface -- we would have to clean it out (the current Pro-Ride surface), implement it, and test it. We would need September, October, November, and right into December, when our meet begins."

Mills said he was prevented by confidentiality from discussing the letter when he and other MID representatives appeared before the CHRB May 20, but its details have since been made public, freeing him to talk about it.

Chillingworth said the installation of a new track was never brought up in his discussions of the Oak Tree lease with MID.

"If they were saying that we need that time to put in a new track and we need you take a one-year hiatus, that would be something, but they didn't," Chillingworth said. While keeping the door open, he said he held little hope for any type of a breakthrough when Stronach is in California.

"If they made it attractive for us, say they want us back under the conditions of our pre-existing lease that was to expire in 2016," Oak Tree would be interested, he said. "But they always want more."

He said company representatives have made it clear they would also want to take any future Breeders' Cup dates. "We would run the (Oak Tree) meet and they would run the Breeders' Cup," Chillingworth said. "It makes no sense at all."

Jack Liebau, president at Hollywood Park, said Oak Tree has a standing offer to operate at the Inglewood track rent-free. A similar deal has been extended by Del Mar, Chillingworth said, but because of its proximity for horsemen, it would make more sense to use the Hollywood facility in 2010.

He said Oak Tree would prefer to remain at Santa Anita.

"We've been at Santa Anita for 41 years," Chillingworth said. "We have a long tradition there. But it seems like all the old traditions in racing are dying."

If Oak Tree leaves for 2010, might it return at some future date? "You never say never," Mills said. "Santa Anita is always open to receiving proposals for special events that benefit the Thoroughbred industry."

Mills said MID has been actively working with California Thoroughbred Trainers on selecting a new main track surface for Santa Anita. With trainer Darrell Vienna of the track safety committee of the CTT, Santa Anita officials have looked at eight different types of surfaces that employ a special underground system allowing the track superintendent to add or subtract water, depending on need. He said the surfaces have various compositions, but Stronach would ultimately make the decision.

Santa Anita originally installed Cushion Track in 2007 following the CHRB's synthetic track mandate but had to pull most of that out due to drainage and hardness issues. Its current Pro-Ride track includes remnants of the prior synthetic track and also has had drainage problems.