Fairplex at Santa Anita Meet Draws Opposition

The proposed transfer of Los Angeles County Fair racing dates from Fairplex to Santa Anita Park has drawn immediate opposition from another tenant of Santa Anita, the Oak Tree Racing Association, as well as others.

"I would deem it totally unacceptable if this change would occur this year," said Oak Tree executive vice president Sherwood Chillingworth. "We are opposed to it ever occurring."

On June 6, the California Horse Racing Board is to hear a request for a change of venue for the 17-day meet, which runs from Sept. 13-29.

Magna Entertainment Corporation, owners of Santa Anita, and the LACF argue that the switch benefits racing in the state because it will increase attendance and handle, resulting in larger purses for owners and trainers. They believe it will also provide a superior setting and create potential for a higher level of competition, including Breeders' Cup prep races, by moving to a one-mile track from a five-eighths of a mile oval, and providing a turf course.

Jack Liebau, president of California operations for Magna, called it a "win-win" situation.

The county fair meet, the only one in Southern California, immediately precedes t he Oak Tree meet on the state's racing calendar. The Oak Tree meet is scheduled for Oct. 2-Nov. 5.

Chillingworth contends that the Oak Tree meet would be diminished by the addition of the Fairplex dates, making it a "continuation of their meet."

"They'll use up the turf course before we ever get to it," he said. "Basically, we've got our landlord telling us they are going ahead with this without ever consulting us. And now they are talking about running Breeders' Cup prep races. That's what we do."

Liebau said that many of Chillingworth's concerns are unfounded.

"The Fairplex meet will in no way undermine Oak Tree's stakes schedule and its turf racing," Liebau said. "The Fairplex meet will simply not be allowed to jeopardize the condition of the turf course...There will be a clear distinction between" the two meets.

Chillingworth questioned the timing of the request. California racing dates for this year were set last year, he noted, and according to state regulations they cannot be changed unless there are "unforeseen circumstances."

"Unforeseen circumstances are Hollywood Park burning down or something like that," Chillingworth said. "Not Fairplex, which has talked about doing this for years, making a deal with Santa Anita."

"Why are we getting into this thing at this late date?" Chillingworth asked. "It takes us six months of discussion before we can decide to allow putting a logo on a jockey's pants. If we're going to make a change of this magnitude, let's look at the whole allocation of racing dates."

It appears Chillingworth is not alone in his opposition to moving the Fairplex dates to Santa Anita.

Rick Baedecker, president of Churchill Downs-owned Hollywood Park said he would oppose the change. Hollywood Park initiated discussions to lease Fairplex dates from LACF late last year, but negotiations broke down.

Liebau said that by opposing the Santa Anita deal, Hollywood Park is "casting itself in the role of spoil sport."

"I don't blame him for saying that," Baedecker said. "Because all of the reasons he has stating for making the move--are the same reasons we got involved. But that's not why we are opposed."

Del Mar, which concludes its annual race meet prior to the opening of Fairplex and has benefited from having a fair meet follow it, is likely to also line up against the change in dates. The Thoroughbred Owners of California has yet to take a position on the change.

CHRB commission John Harris has voiced a number of concerns, including the impact the move would have on horsemen, labor and fans, and on the future of Fairplex itself, where about 400 to 500 horses train and stable each year.

"My concern is this is not a real simple transaction," he said. "We don't know the terms yet. It seems Santa Anita wants to buy the dates. But those dates don't really belong to Fairplex to sell. They belong to the people of the state of California."