09/27/2009 11:00PM

A 40-year-old idea still going strong


ARCADIA, Calif. - The Oak Tree Racing Association, now in business a full 40 years, was born into a culture in turmoil. The year 1969 was the time of Richard Nixon, Neil Armstrong, and Charles Manson. There was Woodstock, My Lai, and Chappaquiddick, "Midnight Cowboy," "The Godfather," and the "Age of Aquarius."

Horse racing across the land was holding its own in competition with other diversions. Majestic Prince emerged from California to energize the Triple Crown. Nodouble's Santa Anita Handicap drew 51,490. The average attendance for 75 days at Santa Anita was 25,254. For 75 days at Hollywood Park it was 29,278. For 81 home games at Chavez Ravine (including three double-headers), the Dodgers averaged 22,031.

Oak Tree tapped into Jimmy Kilroe's idea of extending major West Coast turf racing into October and early November, creating a dry and sunny stage upon which many of the era's best grass horses performed. Czar Alexander of Ireland won the first Oak Tree Invitational, then came back 10 days later to finish a gallant third in the Washington, D.C. International. Daryl's Joy of New Zealand won the second Oak Tree Invitational, while Chile's Cougar took the third and fourth.

The Oak Tree business model of plowing profits into equine veterinary research, as well as community and racing charities, helped ease the squeamishness California politicians may have felt about expanding gambling. At the same time, Santa Anita's ownership stood to reap a tidy piece of rent during an otherwise fallow fall.

Without Oak Tree, there would not have been $26 million contributed toward all manner of racing industry endeavors, from the University of California School of Veterinary Medicine to the Grayson Foundation for Equine Research.

Without Oak Tree, their corporate landlords at Santa Anita would have had no full-dress testing ground for new turf courses, parimutuel systems, betting menus, paint jobs, and, more recently, two different synthetic main-track surfaces.

And do not forget, all those who loathe another trip to the Left Coast next month, without Oak Tree, there would be no warm weather host on the entire North American continent either willing or able to present the Breeders' Cup. But then, warm weather always has been overrated.

Oak Tree took a well-publicized beating on their 2008 Breeders' Cup contract, mostly because it was tied to disappointing, overpriced ticket sales and depressed parimutuel handle. But their deal is different this time around, with more conservative projections, and the rest of the industry should be grateful that Oak Tree took the bullet by staging not one but two Cups during a full-blown nightmare of an economic recession.

"I'm pretty nervous about it, but hopefully it's successful," said Dr. Jack Robbins, Oak Tree's president. "We're approaching it a whole lot differently, accepting the fact that we're in a bad economy and continue to be in a bad economy."

When Oak Tree opens for business again Wednesday at Santa Anita Park, the prospects of another 40 years as California's benevolent uncle are decidedly blurred. Forces beyond Oak Tree's immediate control are pressing from all sides.

By now the litany has become familiar. Santa Anita and Golden Gate are up for sale, and buyers are not exactly breaking down the doors. Hollywood Park is on land too valuable for its owners to continue as a racing business much longer. In the wake of the demolition of Bay Meadows, Northern California is hunkering down around a Golden Gate-Pleasanton hub. Fairplex Park has become little more than a very minor league for major claiming stables to run their third string. Even Del Mar is bracing for its own brand of turmoil in paradise, with its lease renewal held in political limbo and upper management in transition.

Compared to such a cast of institutional characters, Oak Tree is the boring, buttoned-down account exec who shows up to work every day, hits all the right notes, and goes home to a grateful family. Of the present board of Oak Tree directors only Robbins is left from the founding group of 40 years ago. Robbins, a practicing veterinarian at the time, describes himself as the "working man" on that original board full of millionaire businessmen, owners, and breeders such as Clement Hirsch, Lou Rowan, Ben J. Ridder, and J.T. Jones.

"I used to meet those guys in the California Club wearing old work clothes from the backstretch, when they were all dressed up in suits, all of them retired with their wealth," Robbins said. "It's changed a lot from those days."

Robbins has a couple of working stiffs serving on the current board, namely Richard Mandella, the Hall of Fame trainer, and Dr. Rick Arthur, a former practicing vet who now serves at Equine Medical Director of the California Horse Racing Board. Owner-breeders John Barr, Tom Capehart, Warren Williamson, and Robert Zamarripa round out the group, with Sherwood Chillingworth in his 20th year as Oak Tree's executive vice president.

Now that the experiment of modern corporate racetrack ownership in California has failed, the Oak Tree approach is looking more and more appealing as a way to help nurture a failing industry back to health. But will Oak Tree step up?

"Depending on who eventually owns Santa Anita racetrack, when Hollywood folds I would say that Oak Tree and Santa Anita will get a majority of the dates in Southern California," Robbins said.

"Right now Oak Tree provides a third of Santa Anita's profits," he added. "Anybody who buys Santa Anita, if it's sold, will agree that Oak Tree offers a pretty good situation."

Seems like some 40-year-old ideas still hold water.